The fight film Warrior is a rousing entertainment for the new depression. Only instead of breadlines and dance marathons, we get bank foreclosures and an epic, 48-hour mixed marital arts tournament in Atlantic City – the War on the Shore. Winner gets $5-million.
Our warriors are the Conlons, Pittsburgh palookas with more troubles than Ireland. Ex-boxer dad, Paddy (Nick Nolte) is a recovering alcoholic with a thousand days sober – one for every bad memory. Son Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a former fighter with concussion issues, is a punch away from oblivion. He’s a high-school physics teacher now, with a beautiful wife and home and two young daughters that love him.
But one of the little girls has a heart defect, which means sky-high medical bills. And the family’s beautiful home? It’s about to be taken away by the bank.
Brother Tommy (Tom Hardy) is the apple of Paddy’s eye. The old man trained the kid. A sure-fire champ, everyone figured. Then the apple got bruised: a broken mother who died in his arms … Iraq … Tommy wants the $5-million, sure, but he’s really in the big tournament so he can beat up the world.
Yeah, the movie piles it on. Warrior is a weirdly affecting hybrid, a 100-proof melodrama that’s two-thirds Sylvester Stallone and one-third Eugene O’Neill. Think Rocky’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Our Long Day begins with Tommy showing up on Paddy’s doorstep. He wants his father to train him again. More than anything, though, Tommy wants to get back at his family. Every day, he batters away at the old man with memories. Combination punches calculated to push Paddy to the bottle. Brother Brendan is almost as mad at the old man. He won’t even let him in his house.
And so, like the Tyrones in O’Neill’s play, the Conlons stalk about airless rooms, probing each other’s wounds, trapped in the past.
Still, make no mistake, this is an action movie, one that validates (it sure glamorizes) mixed marital arts, confirming its status as this generation’s blood sport of choice. On the way to Atlantic City, the Conlon boys kick and punch their way from dingy corner gyms through the strip club amateur fight night circuit. Eventually, they’re YouTube and ESPN sensations.
Writer-director Gavin O’Connor ( Miracle) shrewdly negotiates the old Thirties-Forties boxing movie formula, establishing characters and motivation early on, baiting us with the odd fight scene, opening us up for the dramatic kill – The Big Fight finale that has us bobbing and weaving with our new-found heroes in the ring.
And while Warrior provides more than a few knockout action sequences, the surprise here is that the most memorable fight is a mostly improvised scene in an Atlantic City hotel bedroom, where Nick Nolte’s Paddy beats himself up, with one of his boys watching.
Paddy Conlon is Nolte’s best part since Affliction. And Warrior needs him. Wobbly but proud, irreparably damaged Paddy ups the dramatic ante in his sons’ obsession to be champ. He’s the Or Else that makes their quest so desperate.
Just as important, perhaps, Nolte’s powerful, meticulously glamour-free depiction of an alcoholic lends the fanciful fight melodrama a much needed realistic punch.
Commonwealth stars, both relative newcomers, Joel Edgerton (Australia) and Tom Hardy (England) are almost as good as Brendan and Tommy Conlon. This guy could be the next Russell Crowe, you find yourself thinking, watching them work.
The smart money is on Hardy, who has Crowe’s bulky insistence and Keanu Reeves’ unclouded, angelic face.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Written and directed by Gavin O’Connor
- Starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte
- Classification: 14A