The men at the center of Warrior are bruised and battered long before any of them step into the ring. The story of two brothers pitted against each other in a mixed martial arts tournament could have easily felt rote or manipulative, but thanks to its crystalline performances, smart script, and understated direction, Warrior succeeds in being the best sports movie since Rocky.
Following the welcome inclusion of The National‘s “Start a War,” the film opens with recovering alcoholic Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) receiving a visit from his estranged son Tommy (the chameleonic Tom Hardy). A few pointed remarks reveal the years of abuse Tommy and his now-deceased mother suffered at Paddy’s hand.
Paddy, for his part, is penitent and looking to make amends — he’s a thousand days sober and hopes to rebuild the bridges he burned so long ago. Tommy, still reeling from his mother’s death and the trauma of his tour in Iraq, is less than receptive. But when Tommy asks his father to help him train for a mixed martial arts tournament, Paddy sees his chance to play father again.
Meanwhile, Paddy’s other son Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is facing his own paternal struggles. Whereas their traumatic upbringing has left Tommy bitter, churlish, and introverted, Brendan has blossomed by using Paddy as a blueprint for what not to be. Instead, he’s a doting, patient father to his two daughters and, in his job as a high school physics teacher, a charismatic, beloved educator. But when a looming bank foreclosure threatens to leave Brendan and his family without a home, he’s forced to return to the world of fighting he long ago abandoned. It isn’t long before a large-scale tournament called Sparta and its 5-million dollar cash purse catch his eye.
Of course, the Sparta tournament is the same one Tommy and Paddy are training for, and the way in which the three men’s paths inevitably intersect is part of the fun. And though Warrior is first and foremost a character study, it also knows its way around an action sequence. The lightning-paced battles in this film are as visceral and immediate as anything in Raging Bull (though less stylized), and you cringe at every thrown punch and kick because you’re so invested in the characters.
Much of that credit goes to Hardy and Edgerton, who clear the physical and emotional hurdles of their roles with grace, but also to director/co-writer Gavin O’Connor. Best known for the overwrought hockey film Miracle, O’Connor directs with more restraint here, never showing or overplaying his hand. The understated script favors realism over sentimentality — the characters’ attempts at communication are often misunderstood or abandoned, as they would be in real life, and the drama lies in all the things that go unsaid.
But perhaps the biggest revelation in Warrior is Nick Nolte, who at the age of 70 is still able to surprise. Nolte has played both sides of the abusive father relationship in films as varied as Hulk and Affliction, but he perfects the role here. As the aging patriarch looking for forgiveness he probably doesn’t deserve, Paddy is barely able to conceal the desperation in his eyes. He does everything he can to win back his sons’ affection (pleading “like a beggar with a cup,” as Tommy describes him), only to be stonewalled at every turn. The ways in which Paddy succeeds and fails in the face of those setbacks give Nolte some of the finest moments of his career.
At its heart, Warrior is a story of redemption. Each character is struggling to conquer his past, and the ways in which that sets them at odds with one another when it should be bringing them closer only adds to the tension. These are complicated, proud men, and apologies or forgiveness can only take them so far. By the film’s end, who actually wins the tournament is an afterthought. The real victory lies in how the characters finally learn to let go of the past so they can have a future.
Warrior opens on September 9.