"Warrior" is everything I wish "The Fighter" had been. Unlike last year's Bostonian squabble-fest that turned rather quickly into a high-pitched acting battle, "Warrior" is subdued, deep, affecting and enlightening. It has a profound understanding of what motivates people to put themselves in harm's way -- to brave the ferocity of the ring. And "Warrior" isn't even about boxing; it's about Mixed Martial Arts. The only films made yet about the sport -- like "Fighting" and "Never Back Down" -- are essentially "Karate Kid" rehashes with amped up Jet Li fight scenes out by the bike rack. "Warrior" is a novelty because it exemplifies the well-known tropes of the boxing genre while revealing the battered wounds and broken flesh (both literal and figurative) behind a sport many see as sideshow carnage.
MMA is, in so many ways, more brutal, horrific -- and even athletic -- than its more traditional cousin. If boxing is a dizzying dance of footwork and strategy, then UFC is that as well -- plus a sweat and blood, contorted mauling once the fighting hits the mat. Compared to the mixed kung fu, wrestling and judo throw-downs of MMA -- which are nothing if not officiated street brawls -- boxing is a gentleman's game, marked by the decency of letting a man get up if he's down. MMA grants no such courtesy; when an opponent is crawling on the mat that's when you attack, either with a blizzard of face jabs for a TKO or a meticulously planned foot clamp or arm trap for the mercy of a tap out.
Which approach a warrior takes depends a lot on what kind of fighter he is and, perhaps even more, what kind of man. There are two brothers at the heart of "Warrior". The oldest, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), is a physics teacher and family man from industrial Philly. He was forced to give up fighting after he was personally chauffeured from too many bouts in ambulances. After the bank forecloses on his house, Brendan decides the only way to keep the home he shares with his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and their two daughters is to get back in the Cage. His brother Tommy (Tom Hardy) crawls out of the shadows in the first minutes of the film after years of absence. A returning Iraq veteran driven by anger, guilt and disillusionment, Tommy -- a former high school wrestling prodigy -- dusts off his gloves just in time to compete in a massive Atlantic City tournament called Sparta. Both brothers have their eyes on the prize, but having been estranged for years, each is unaware the other is even in contention. The film's driving question becomes: Will the brothers meet in the final?
Already we have two opposite poles about to collide: the brother who fights for love versus the one who fights for hate. Their mannerisms and behaviors show us what they're up against. Brendan is all humility and underdog resilience -- winning by pinning and inexhaustible endurance. Tommy arrives at each match in a pointed, black-hooded sweatshirt that has the appearance of MMA's own poor man's version of pro boxing theatrics, and perhaps even shades of grim reaper reckoning as Tommy struts from the locker room with a look of psychotic determination. He prefers knockouts to pins, and when his work is finished he flies from the ring like it's the scene of a crime -- which it kind of is. As one announcer puts it, "If he did that to somebody on the street, they'd lock him up and throw away the key."
The only thing these siblings have in common is the ex-alcoholic father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), who managed to drive them both away with his drunken abuse. Paddy's fight is for redemption and forgiveness from the sons he may have disheartened too much to ever truly reconcile with. He spends his days and nights listening to "Moby Dick" on tape -- another melancholic tale of fruitless pursuit. ("We're lost, Tommy. We're all lost.") He's Tommy's trainer for most of the film, but it's pretty clear both men are facing past and present pains all by themselves.
Although boxing will always be one of our nation's favorite barbaric pastimes, MMA is today's more synthesized version of mortal combat. It satisfies the blood lust of desensitized youths in ways boxing never could. So the fact that "Warrior" is so up-to-the-minute makes it an interesting amalgam of the classic and the immediate. Brendan's story shows how economic pitfalls can force good people to act desperately, even in spite of their own well-being. Tommy's a study in how war can sometimes create monsters -- and when transplanted to the Cage, Tommy is a titanic incarnation of militarist efficiency and almost mechanized detachment. Both brothers become web sensations when their early training rounds go viral. We live in a world where celebrities are made over night on the web.
Exacerbated by an aesthetic that prefers claustrophobic realism, director Gavin O'Conner stages every scene out of the Cage as if it were in it. The conversations between the three central characters are like heated verbal assaults on the verge of actual fisticuffs. And the performances are so astonishingly convincing that even the dapper Briton Tom Hardy (who played smooth talking Eames in "Inception") morphs into a blue-collar Philadelphian with a chip on his shoulder so large it's crushing him -- a wild beast who needs to be broken before he can be reached. Joel Edgerton ("Animal Kingdom", and soon to be Tom Buchanan in next year's "Gatsby") is an Aussie whose innocent gaze of wide-eyed soulfulness makes his Brendan the film's sturdy rock, the variable in the equation normal-enough to drag his fragmented family towards catharsis. And Nick Nolte's performance has a raspy voiced, face-mashed, Rourkian quality that recalled "The Wrestler" in its broken old man vulnerability.
I was also thankful that "Warrior" wasn't all searing drama. Brendan's cheering section of students and faculty -- including the principal who suspended him -- are an enlivening troupe of misfits with matching t-shirts that say GO MR. C! and signs that read Kick Some A++. The announcer's at the tournament are a wisecracking duo that reminded me of a less cartoonish Gary Cole and Jason Bateman in "Dodgeball". Before Brendan's opening fight, one calls him a "feeder fish" as he holds up an actual goldfish in a plastic bag. The action junkies out there will be happy to know the fight scenes are prolonged physical demolitions that are in-the-ring visceral and wincingly hard-nosed.
"Warrior" is one of those rare films in which all the main characters deserve their own movie. By the end, all three stories unify for a euphoric conclusion just as the wounds of the Cage and the wounds of life begin to heal simultaneously. There is no doubt; the movie is a calculated sports drama with some predictable elements. But that's so not the point; "Warrior" is about the brutality of battle and the power of convalescence, and how you must often endure one in order to experience the warmth of the other.