Warrior, the new film by Gavin O'Connor, is all the more impressive because it reheats leftovers (to name a few - sibling rivalry, broken families, underdog fighters), but sells it as fine dining. Starring two relatively new actors to most American audiences (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton), O'Connor's film allows each of them an emotional journey that feels hackneyed at times, but it ultimately delivers upon its premise in a manner earned through a series of smaller scenes focused around familial conflicts and the jolting, genuinely thrilling fight scenes. You'll walk out of the theater satisfied at this rousing, unexpectedly emotional throwback.
Hardy plays Tommy Reardon, an ex-Marine who returns to his father's home in Pittsburgh for the first time in years. His father, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), is an alcoholic approaching 1000 days of sobriety. We learn that Tommy and his mother fled Paddy after she'd suffered too many years of abuse. After her death, Tommy joined the Marines, and the film slowly fills in the details of Tommy's time in the military. His reunion with his father is strictly business. Tommy, once a state wrestling champion, decides to enter a Mixed Martial Arts competition called Sparta; he wants his father to coach him. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Across the state in Philadelphia, Brendan Conlon (Edgerton) is a physics teacher married to his high school sweetheart, Tess (Jennifer Morrison). Together, they have two young daughters and a house they can no longer afford. Looking for a way to earn enough money to make the payments, Brendan, an ex-UFC fighter, starts to get into some low-rent MMA fights against the better wishes of his wife. His plan backfires when he shows up to school looking like he'd participated in a fight club; the school district suspends him without pay. With no other viable options and plenty of time on his hands, Brendan begins readying for an opportunity to fight in Sparta with his old trainer, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo).
Only those who have never watched a single film in their lives would not predict we're heading for a showdown between the two brothers. And the film doesn't disappoint on a visceral level; superbly filmed and edited, the fight scenes don't even attempt some hyperbolic attempt at poeticism. The fights are brutal; some shockingly quick, while others (mostly Brendan's) display a grim resilience to take a beating. Nonetheless, these scenes are thrilling, and they incite a worthy sense of viewer conflict because you don't wish to see either brother lose.
Still, the fights just provide some of the scaffolding. The dominant architectural structure revolves around family, and story excels here. O'Connor displays a tremendous respect for his characters, their strengths, their flaws, their humanity. Brendan's remark that "we're not going backwards" when his wife mentions giving up the house speaks of a larger profundity for his characters: the need for forward progress in order to remove oneself from the past's shackles. For Brendan, this means severing himself and his family from Paddy in order to become the type of father and husband Paddy never could be. For Tommy, it means exorcising his demons by confronting his past head on. Like Paddy says, "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't." The accumulation of various intimate moments (Tommy calling an a Marine buddy's wife in El Paso, Frank expressing wariness for Brendan's comeback, Tess's incessant checking of her cell phone while waiting for word of Brendan's victory/defeat) and the subdued respect it demonstrates for working-class individuals allows for the viewer to be swept along by the film's mechanized plot. This is a film that actually cares for its characters; instead of the characters existing for fights, the fights exist for the characters.
In the end, as The National's "About Today" mournfully plays, a simple declaration uttered from one brother to the other cements the film's rugged, but traditional, sense of storytelling. And in this day and age, it's nice to know that emotional truisms unencumbered by fancy stylistic tricks or meta-significance or ironic hipster detachment can still pack a punch.