Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte are terrific in an ultraviolent mixed-martial arts drama with a creepy subtext
It’s tempting to describe the action melodrama “Warrior” as a multi-platform product launch instead of a movie, but that’s overly cynical in an age when most commercial cinema can be described that way. Most obviously, “Warrior” is an attempt to update the boxing film for younger audiences by translating it into the world of mixed martial arts or MMA, a theatrical hybrid of boxing, wrestling and kung fu that has generated a massive, media-savvy audience. As such, it’s pretty effective: Director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor (of the cop drama “Pride and Glory” and the hockey fable “Miracle”) is a strong craftsman in a mode you might call heightened American realism. He gets powerful performances from Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as estranged brothers who wind up fighting in the same Atlantic City single-elimination tournament, with predictable results. There sure is a lot of ass-whipping amid the tween-boy histrionics of MMA (fights literally occur inside a cage; the referee howls, “Let’s go to war!”), and while I’m no expert, the bouts look convincing enough.
I had a striking and peculiar reaction to “Warrior,” in fact. I enjoyed its archetypal heartland hokum a great deal for most of its running time, largely because the characters are more complicated than you expect and because O’Connor and co-writers Cliff Dorfman and Anthony Tambakis are smart enough to leave certain things unsaid. Hardy’s Tommy Conlon is an impressive creation, a bulked-up ex-Marine who’s been hitting the booze and pills hard since getting back from Iraq and is driven by a dark, deep-seated rage he can’t even begin to understand. His brother Brendan (Edgerton), a high-school teacher who goes back into fighting to save his family’s suburban home from foreclosure, is well-rendered but less interesting. As their recovering alcoholic dad, Nick Nolte gives one of the best performances of his growly-bear late career, turning what could have been a generic Irish-American pop into an anguished walking ghost, compulsively listening to an audiobook of “Moby-Dick” on his cassette Walkman.
But as the chain of clichés, coincidences and unlikely events that form the story of “Warrior” reach critical mass, I ended up feeling almost as bludgeoned by the movie as the opponents Tommy and Brendan must batter into submission on their way to the inevitable confrontation with each other, Dad, God and destiny (and a score that features excerpts of “Ode to Joy”). Yeah, this movie tells virtually the same story as David O. Russell’s “The Fighter,” except that it offers two miraculous palooka comebacks for the price of one, is built around an ultraviolent sport that makes boxing look like a Japanese tea ceremony, and delivers way more ‘roided-up storybook redemption. Of course a movie like this has no official ideology, and to suggest that it does is to be a killjoy. But in search of audience gratification — distributor Lionsgate is hoping for a big hit here — O’Connor chucks away everything that was interesting or dark or subtle in “Warrior” and replaces it with a pseudo-individualist, sub-Freudian, Tea Party-friendly fantasy. Our screwed-up country got you down? Bank coming for your house? Just beat the crap out of some other losers who are in the same pickle, ending up with your own damn brother, and everything will be fine.
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