It’s not usual to cry at the end of a martial arts film, but Warrior is not the typical martial arts movie. Written, produced, and directed by Long Island native Gavin O’Connor, Warrior is about family ties, how they pull us apart and bring us back together. This is an action film with a heart, showing that no matter how deep the hurt, there is always room for healing.
Nick Nolte, a Best Supporting Oscar nominee, hasn’t had a role this meaty in years and he takes full advantage. With his raspy voice and battered face, we have no difficulty accepting him as Patty Conlon, a recovering alcoholic whose abusive behavior drove his family apart. His two sons took different paths and have been estranged ever since. Older son, Brendan (Joel Egerton), walked out at age 16, marrying his high school sweetheart, Tess (Jennifer Morrison) while the younger son, Tommy (Tom Hardy) stayed with their mother, nursing her through an illness until her death.
The two brothers will be brought together for an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), facing each other outside and inside the “cage,” an eight-sided enclosure whose official name is “The Octagon.” The competition is a $5 million winner-take-all and each brother is willing to risk everything to win the purse. Brendan’s salary as a high school physics teacher isn’t enough to provide for his wife and two daughters. With foreclosure looming, Brendan, over Tess’s objections, decides to return to fighting and compete in the tournament. When Brendan’s high school discovers he’s fighting, he’s suspended without pay, putting even more pressure on him to win.
Tommy, a former marine, returns home and, entering a local gym, beats a professional fighter named Pete “Mad Dog” Grimes (Erik Apple), knocking him unconscious in less than a minute. Hearing about the competition, Tommy decides to enter to provide for the family of his friend who died in Iraq. He asks his father, a former wrestling coach, to help him train with one caveat: Paddy shouldn’t entertain any thoughts of a reconciliation. Like Brendan, Tommy still blames his father for the breakup of the family and their difficult childhood.
When a video of Tommy’s gym fight goes viral, it’s seen by a marine in Iraq whose life Tommy once saved. When the marine tells his story to the media, Tommy becomes a national hero and a fan base soon develops. Brendan has his own fan base, his former high school students and even his principal. The marines show up to sing at the tournament while Brendan’s students jam a drive-in watching the fights on a large screen.
Tommy’s fight, however, is not only in the ring but outside. It turns out that his buddy was killed during an incident of friendly fire and Tommy went AWOL shortly afterwards. Because he was using his mother’s maiden name, Riordan, it took time for the press to undercover his background. He’ll be permitted to compete, but will be taken into custody by the military afterwards.
The final battle is wrenching. By now we know what each brother has given up to get this far. All the anger from past hurts comes out in the cage, neither fighter holding back. Tommy appears to be winning, but then Brendan delivers a crushing blow and dislocates Tommy’s shoulder. He pleads with Tommy to “tap out,” holding him on the mat telling him he loves him. Eventually Tommy gives in and we know full well what that surrender has cost him.
The two brothers, battered and bloody, cling to each other as they walk out of the arena. Paddy stands nearby, a slight smile on his face.
Warrior isn’t a family film or a date film (unless you share your date’s love of martial arts). The fight scenes, while well staged, are nonetheless brutal. UFC incorporates all types of fighting including, besides boxing and wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, karate, and Muay Thai. Not only do fists fly, but every other body part imaginable. But there’s so much more here besides the fighting. We can, of course, draw all sorts of conclusions about our current economic environment and what people will do to save their families and their homes. We can also think about how one person, particularly a parent, can derail a family for decades to come. Sometimes “sorry” won’t cut it. There has to be more give-back before true forgiveness can happen.
While Nick Nolte is the best known actor in this cast, the others are certainly on the rise. British actor, Tom Hardy (Tommy) will star in Dark Knight Rises, with Christian Bale, while Australian actor Joel Egerton (Brendan), will soon be seen in Disney’s The Odd Life of Timothy Green with Jennifer Garner. These are two to watch.
Ever since Nolte burst on the scene in the TV mini series Rich Man, Poor Man in 1976, he has perfected the comeback, both on the screen and in his real life. We are glad to see him back in fine form.