Yes, it’s cliched, overwrought and often unbelievable—not to mention full of hoary melodrama and uninspired direction—but somehow, Warrior works, at least within the small confines of its uplifting-sports flick-breeding. Warrior never even comes close to greatness, but is nevertheless entertaining thanks to a strong cast.
Nothing about Warrior is particularly original. Its faux-cinéma vérité handheld style—which amounts poor lighting and deciding which inanimate object to hide the camera behind—seems lifted from better films like Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008) and David O. Russell’s The Fighter. In terms of plot, it’s a basic underdog story, borrowing liberally from the Rocky series, differing largely in that our hard-luck hero has been transplanted from the realm of boxing into the world of mixed martial arts.
The story revolves around two brothers, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), who were both trained as MMA fighters by Paddy (Nick Nolte), their formerly alcoholic, abusive father. Tommy is the younger of the two, a former Marine who begrudgingly recruits his father to help him train for an MMA tournament. Brendan, meanwhile, is a high-school physics teacher who’s about to lose his home—and who also carries a grudge against his father, not to mention having some issues with his little brother.
After reel-upon-reel of continued bad breaks and various melodramatic twists and turns, the crux of the film becomes the MMA tournament that both Tommy and Brendan enter. None of this is unexpected to anyone who has seen the trailer for the film, but Warrior somehow manages to keep the story interesting in the telling. The overwrought nature of the plot actually helps here, piling on enough twists, turns and bouts of bad luck to keep everything moving along. What really makes Warrior watchable, however, is its cast. Sure, there’s zero star power and little name recognition beyond Nolte, but we do get two rising, classy actors who imbue their characters with enough humanity to make you care about their stories.
While rarely on screen together, Edgerton and Hardy manage to make their roles as dual protagonists believable and grounded, even while the plot meanders off into the stagey and sensational. Even with its penchant for the overly dramatic, Warrior’s script has moments of surprising depth, with interactions that are intensely complicated and refreshingly ambiguous. These moments often come from simple plot twists (such as the real reason for Tommy’s war heroism) to deeper character traits (like both brothers complicated relationship with Paddy). While I certainly don’t think the film ever reaches its Oscar-contender aspirations, Warrior remains a surprisingly entertaining watch. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material.