There’s just something about this Gavin O’Connor guy. His first widely released feature, Miracle, was a Disney-produced recreation of the legendary 1980 Winter Olympics hockey game, when the youthful men’s US team miraculously beat the unbeatable Russians. Now, while I acknowledge that the real event was as iconic as American sports moments get, hockey itself is a sport I could care less about. Mix my indifference with a cast of unknowns and a burnt-out lead, and I’m all but lost. Miracle, however, did its title justice by being a great addition to the camaraderie-conquers-all sports genre. It’s quite a good film, one that was well-received critically, but barely seen commercially.
Next was Pride and Glory, a very R-rated spin on a very familiar, good cops vs. bad cops plot. So again, O’Connor is working with tired, used-up material but somehow delivering distinction.
Now we’ve got Warrior, a (mostly) family-friendly battle of brothers, who after years of estrangement, find themselves toe to toe in an all-or-nothing mixed martial arts tournament. Barf. Seriously, did you see this trailer? With its eardrum-shattering horn music, its conveniently clichéd dialogue and horribly staged plot execution? Warrior, in my eyes, promised nothing, which makes the final outcome that much more awe inspiring.
Warrior, to speak frankly, is nothing short of excellent. Its scenes are long, with plentiful accurate dialogue, but there isn’t a wasted minute in its nearly two and a half hour running time. Its MMA fights are fast, ferocious and supremely badass. And its acting, dare I say, ranks among the finest ensemble we’ve seen from any movie so far this year.
Tom Hardy (spectacular in Bronson, better known for Inception and the upcoming Dark Knight Rises) plays Tommy, a reserved loner who resurfaces after years of being absent. He soon begins training, eyeing the $5 million purse promised by the epic tournament. His motives – what he plans to do with the money, why he resurfaced now – aren’t initially clear.
Joel Edgerton (Baz from the brilliant Animal Kingdom) plays Tommy’s older brother, Brendan, a loving husband, devoted father, and hip high school teacher, moonlighting as an MMA fighter to save his home from foreclosure.
In the middle is their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic who both brothers appear to hate equally. Paddy drove his wife and youngest son out years ago, and made a lasting enemy out of Brendan. Nolte, in his best performance since The Thin Red Line, does absolute wonders with Paddy. He takes him far beyond overused sports clichés, instead making him a real, complicated, fleshed out, washed up bruiser of an old man. It’s the best performance in a movie filled with many, including bit parts by Noah Emmerich (an O’Connor regular, playing a take-it-or-leave-it bank loaner), Frank Grillo (as Brendan’s trainer), Kevin Dunn (as a high school principal), Jennifer Morrison (as Brendan’s wife), and O’Connor himself, who briefly plays the millionaire organizer of the tournament.
Warrior can best be summed up by its opening and closing scenes. The former is a 20 minute conversation – slow, deliberate, character revealing, the latter is a 10 minute fight – quick, raw, character revealing. Both are paced perfectly and use no flashy gimmicks to make their point clear. The scenes are bookends to a film you shouldn’t be expected to like, but will find yourself exceptionally surprised in doing so. A-