Two brothers seek redemption in a mixed martial arts or MMA tournament. Brendan is living in suburban Philadelphia with a wife and kids. He’s behind in his mortgage and will lose his home within a month unless he can make the payments. The other, Tommy is a troubled Iraq war veteran back from the conflict, who hides a secret. Audience pleasing sports drama does for mixed martial arts what Rocky did for boxing. It probably goes without saying, but if you’re even remotely interested in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) this is required viewing.
The fighter film is the perfect archetype to show the literal struggle of man against the world. I have always been a sucker for these types of stories for that very reason. It’s hard in this day and age to take on this subject creatively because it has been the topic of numerous films over the years. The family struggling to pay the mortgage, the once alcoholic father trying to make amends with his sons, the estranged brothers who haven’t talked to each other in years, the students cheering on their beloved, but recently suspended schoolteacher, it’s all here, piled up high with an extra helping of melodrama. That shouldn’t be surprising coming from writer/director Gavin O’Connor’ who also did the rousing Miracle, the Disney drama about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. He has a somewhat theatrical touch and the proceedings here might have benefited from less fabrication and a bit more gritty realism. Warrior shamelessly manipulates the vocabulary of other, better movies of this type in appropriating emotion and excitement. Rocky, Raging Bull, The Wrestler, The Fighter – it suggests every one of these at various times throughout its running time. While it never matches any of the aforementioned for depth, I was still surprisingly moved by the entire thing. Yes, it’s a formula picture. The manipulation is indisputable, but there’s no denying that it’s skillfully done.
The plot is cleverly divided into two distinct halves. The first is a soft, tender examination of the relationship between father and his two sons. A little screen time is focused on their training. There is some discussion regarding the upcoming brawl, but the majority of the action is focused on the bond amongst this broken family now reunited by circumstance. The scenes are beautifully acted and authentically moving. Nick Nolte is Paddy Conlon, the boy’s father. He’s outstanding. He hasn’t given a performance this articulate since Affliction in 1997. Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are his adult sons. The script uniquely spends equal time on each of their stories. Despite being opposites, I found myself conflicted in my support. I liked them both. The second half concerns the big “Sparta” contest in Atlantic City which is a huge $5 million winner-take-all MMA competition. Since neither brother has been battling in the professional MMA arena, how to justify admittance to an event in which only 16 competitors compete? It’s mostly based on connections and luck so the brother’s welcome into the events was pretty far-fetched. Both of them are the very definition of a dark horse contender. But the fights are so viscerally presented, the struggle is a joy to behold. It’s an epic battle between uplifting victory and bone crushing defeat.
This is an old school schmaltzy “rise from the ashes” tale of family. Sibling relationships, father and sons, it’s the genuine emotion that gives weight to the thrill of the altercations in the cage matches that follow. And what fights! They’re incredibly brutal. They mean so much more because we know the stakes behind them. This isn’t original, but it masterfully appropriates from the best and gives us a remix that amplifies emotion to the highest degree. Everything feels vaguely familiar and yet I ate up every cliché with delight.