With mixed martial arts gaining popularity as a more violent alternative to boxing, it was only a matter of time before the sport got the big-screen treatment. What’s surprising, though, is that the first big film to focus on MMA as an organized sport isn’t a cynical smash-and-grab affair, but a rousing drama. Who’d have thought MMA would get its Rocky right out of the gate?
The film is called Warrior—and if that seems like a rather ambitious and all-encompassing title, consider that its director and co-writer, Gavin O’Connor, also made Miracle, about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Warrior isn’t a true story, as its outrageous plot contrivances make clear, but it does ring true in the way it handles the proud, rough men at its center. Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), a family man and high school teacher, is estranged from his brother, Tommy (Tom Hardy), who left years ago to get away from their abusive, alcoholic father. The old man, Paddy (Nick Nolte), is sober and remorseful now, but neither brother wants anything to do with him, or each other.
Brendan and Tommy, both wrestlers (and amateur brawlers) in their youth, now begin training as MMA fighters. Each needs the money that a major victory would bring, but there are more complex motivations, as well, and it’s in examining these that the film really succeeds. Hardy and Edgerton give raw, heartfelt performances as their characters grapple with guilt, responsibility, familial love and masculinity. They use brute force to address issues that other men might have taken to a therapist.
O’Connor stages some virtuoso MMA fights, delivering the red meat audiences crave and cementing his Miracle-earned reputation as a notable director of sports movies. But he does more than that: He makes it mean something. It’s a pretty sneaky trick, giving us a testosterone-driven fight movie that also makes us cry.
Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte