There is no doubt that Warrior will one day be mentioned in the same breath as Rocky and Raging Bull as one of the greatest sports movies of all time. These movies all focus first on the characters and their struggles; the fact they are athletes is secondary in telling their story. Warrior is not only an entertaining and powerful film, it’s also a wonderful reflection of the battles so many people are facing today.
Warrior is as much a family drama as it is about the sport of mixed martial arts. Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is a high school physics teacher who is having a hard time making ends meet for himself, his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), and their two daughters. In an effort to make some extra cash, Brendan begins fighting in local MMA matches. Brendan used to be a professional UFC fighter, but gave that up for Tess and their family. Now, he is pulled back into that world because he has no other way to make money.
Tommy (Tom Hardy) is a former Marine who returns to his hometown after having served in the Middle East. He is also Brendan’s brother, though the two haven’t seen each other in 16 years. Tommy goes to visit their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), a former alcoholic who is trying to make amends for the wrongs he did when he was drinking. As a kid, Tommy was a wrestling prodigy and Paddy was his coach. Now, Tommy doesn’t want a father, but he does need a trainer to help him begin fighting in mixed martial arts.
For different reasons, both men begin preparing for the largest MMA tournament in the world, called Sparta. Only 16 fighters are allowed to enter, but the winner gets a $5 million prize. Both Tommy and Brendan need that money. Though each doesn’t know the other will be competing, they both begin preparing to do whatever it takes to win.
Director Gavin O’Connor (Miracle) deserves copious praise for making a film which works as both an adrenaline-fueled, testosterone-driven sports film and also as a sincere look at one family’s struggles and mistakes which echo what so many families in our country must deal with every day. O’Connor films the fights scenes honestly and respectfully, showing the brutality and danger that comes with fighting in mixed martial arts. But he never allows it to get gruesome for the sake of shock value. O’Connor wisely places the camera in the ring with the fighters to capture the rapid-fire nature of the sport, but also pulls back to a spectator’s point of view to keep the audience distanced from mayhem and violence.
O’Connor also shoots the majority of the film using a Steadicam which keeps the audience off balance and makes the transitions into the ring more fluid. His camera acts as a third party in each scene with the majority of the shots as close-ups which gives the actors nowhere to hide.
Speaking of the actors, Hardy and Edgerton are absolutely extraordinary in the film. In terms of their acting performances, both men completely inhabit their characters and we feel their pain or anger at every step. The real accomplishment, though, is the transformation both men went through in order to play professional MMA fighters. Hardy and Edgerton both trained six days a week for several months in order to learn to not only look like professional fighters, but to do the majority of the fight choreography themselves. O’Connor has said that the two actors did about 85 percent of the fighting seen in the movie. Not many other actors can make such a claim.
Hardy especially deserves recognition for the physical and emotional performance he gives in the film. Since exploding onto the international film scene in Bronson in 2008, Hardy has been steadily making a name for himself as one of the most intense and talented actors around. Though the Academy Awards love to bestow awards on actors who lose weight for a performance, they rarely acknowledge the struggle it takes to gain weight and turn oneself into a real athlete. Hopefully this year that trend will be broken and Hardy will get the attention he deserves.
Warrior is runs 140 minutes and is rated PG-13.