Mixed martial arts (MMA to those in the know) is not a sport I’m particularly familiar with, but after witnessing its unrestrained brutality in Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, I can only assume 50-75% of all competitors die in the octagon, mid-head grip. How could anyone possibly survive such ferocity? Punches have never looked or sounded quite as painful as they do in this film; each crunch and collision between fist and face feels as visceral as anything in cinema that has come before. However, the film’s great achievement is not in the way it manages to drop us unfit and suitably wimpy audience members right into a good ol’ fashioned no-holds-barred fight, but that it can be perfectly touching, heartbreaking and emotionally satisfying at the same time.
It’s the tale of two brothers. Tom Hardy stars as Tommy Conlon, a former fighter and recently returned Iraq vet with one hell of a chip on his shoulder. Although his first port of call in his home town of Pittsburgh is his estranged father Paddy (Nick Nolte), Tommy wants to make it clear that he has no interest in making amends with the abusive former-alcoholic. Rather, he wants Paddy to train him for the upcoming Sparta competition, in which the best MMA fighter in the world can take home a $5 million purse. On the other side of town lives Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), a physics teacher struggling to make a life for his wife (Jennifer Morrison) and their three daughters. When it seems they might lose their home, Brendan tries to earn some extra coin by signing up for some parking-lot bouts at the local strip club. That misguided exploit sees him suspended from work, so he decides to temporarily focus his energy on making money in professional fights. I don’t need to tell you that the brothers will eventually face off at the battle royale.
But don’t write Warrior off just yet. Although it follows the same fight-movie structure as originally laid out in the ancient texts (read: Rocky I-III), it exceeds so many other imitators with its compelling central performances and subtle twists on the genre. Hardy has the screen presence of a wolf, and he fights with that same barbarity. Edgerton is not meant to seem quite as physically equipped, but his stamina in the ring is that of a man who would literally die for his family. At some point, there must have been stunt-men in the ring playing Tommy and Brendan, but if so, I could never tell. Not only does the duo commit their bodies to the roles, but also their souls; both are tortured by demons of the past, but instead of mugging and screaming their way through their individual arcs, they play their parts with understatement and grace (well, the grace of an MMA fighter). When they speak to each other for the first time in the film – amazingly, only once before they actually meet in the ring – we understand their relationship completely. The finale – despite its violence – is beautiful. Nolte similarly gives his all as the “demon” of the Conlon brothers past. Instead of being portrayed as this larger than life figure, we meet him as an emasculated and castrated-dog tormented by past mistakes.
O’Connor and Anthony Tambakis’ screenplay is full of wonderful character moments and tragic exchanges. As a director, O’Connor pulls off some genuinely gripping fight scenes. Perhaps a tad over-long, Warrior still inspired anxiety, joy and yes, even the occasional sniffle.
Warrior arrives in Australian cinemas October 27.