“Warrior,” written by Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman, directed by O’Connor, 140 minutes, rated PG-13.
“Warrior,” the latest movie from Gavin O’Connor (“Pride and Glory”), is built around a question: What would push you to go to war with your own brother?
Is it the $5 million purse up for grabs in the Sparta mixed martial arts tournament? Or does it go deeper.
For Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy), a junky Marine who shows up on his estranged father’s (Nick Nolte) doorstep out of the blue one night, it’s an overwhelming sense of guilt, and a need for redemption. He stayed by his mom’s side while she died, he watched his brothers in arms get killed in Iraq, and he takes it all out on himself. In that $5 million, Tommy sees a chance to pay back those he’s left behind.
For Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), it’s his wife and kids. Brendan, who teaches high school physics in Philadelphia, fought for a brief stint in the UFC years ago until he suffered a serious injury. As the bank moves toward foreclosure on his home, Brendan’s only option is to return to the ring.
Much like cage fighting itself, “Warrior” is a blue-collar movie that doesn’t exactly strive to reinvent the sports genre. Instead, O’Connor embraces the formula made popular by “Rocky,” and makes it his own.
Beyond the simple story of two underdog fighters rising up after being beat down by life, “Warrior” is about discovery (of oneself and those around him) and forgiveness in a family so fractured that the term “family” is hardly applicable. Brendan, Tommy and their father, Paddy, are bound by blood, but each of them has created distance as a way to defend themselves from the past. In the Sparta tournament, they’re forced to confront that past, as well as the present.
“Warrior,” which has a run-time of nearly 2½ hours, is expertly paced, making you completely forget about its length. O’Connor treats both characters and their stories separately, building up to an unpredictable and uncomfortable moment when Tommy and Brendan do come face to face. The movie owes a great deal to its two leads, Edgerton and Hardy. Here they are as authentic as any two actors you’ll see all year.
But with two characters as strong as Tommy and Brendan, the audience has no choice but to root for both brothers. O’Connor does back himself into an inevitable corner — only one can win. The way “Warrior” maneuvers out of that corner is remarkable, unloading its pent-up emotions on the audience in its final frames. It’s enough to bring the most hardened MMA fans (or even fighters) to the brink of tears as the film fades to black.