Despite exploring Mixed Martial Arts, a relatively untapped sport in film, Warrior struggles to offer anything particularly new in the genre. In fact, on the page, Warrior could easily be accused of trying too damn hard. Character conflicts are piled on top of each other in a needless fashion; why can’t Joel Edgerton’s character simply be in financial difficulties, does he need to have an ill daughter to earn audience sympathy? It's just one beat too far, a common issue with this screenplay. Add this to the film cribbing characters and iconography from the Rocky series to excess; we have MMA versions of Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago, and you have a film that should collapse under the weight of its derivative content.
So, yes, lot of Warrior could be considered a cliché but I see a cliché like a puppet string; it manipulates the action in such a transparent way that you need to use them with skill and conviction to keep the audience engaged. If you fail, their eyes will always see the strings. Warrior plays these strings in such an accomplished way that they begin to disappear into the scenery.
It all starts with the performances. Without Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte, I am not sure Warrior would work at all. The men invest an honesty and wounded humanity into what could have been stock characters, creating electrifying and unpredictable character dynamics and, most importantly, earning the big emotional moments and making it all look seamless.
It is interesting to me that it takes a Briton and an Australian to embody these tough-as-nails working class American men, but really I cannot think of any American actors of their generation and their caliber that can convincingly play tough guys with this level of nuance. If this were made in the 1970s I could picture Nick Nolte taking the role of Hardy's Tommy, which gives his casting as their father an added layer of believability.
Nolte is remarkable in his role of a reformed, remorseful alcoholic attempting to rebuild something he destroyed. Nolte is utterly heartbreaking during his interactions with his sons, contrite and yearning for just a scrap of affection.
Hardy's Tommy brings a savage brutality to both the way he fights and the way he delivers dialogue, not content to just throw salt on old wounds, but claw at them until they are bloody. He is built like a beast and that's the way he carries himself through every scene, every bit as frightening as his mesmerizing turn in Bronson. He is relentless in these scenes, turning all his rage inside out, ready to destroy everything or be destroyed in the process. There is no middle ground for him.
Joel Edgerton has made a strong impression on me over a few short roles, specifically The Square and the sublime Animal Kingdom (sorry, Star Wars Prequel fans), and I have long felt that he deserves the career that Sam Worthington is currently squandering. However, when Worthington is taking jobs like Man on a Ledge and Edgerton is getting ones like Warrior, it seems a fair trade.
Brendan is well liked by his students, co-workers and adored by his wife and children; he’s a good guy. He has the most relatable story of the three, as most audience members who are living through this recession can empathise with the fear of losing your job or home. He is the one truly decent man in the film with none of the darkness of Nolte or Hardy’s roles, without becoming frustratingly sanctimonious. He has his share of flaws that add shading to the character, and it’s a tough line to walk while still keeping the character compelling when compared to the volatile Hardy or tragic Nolte. Edgerton does a marvellous job of it.
If Warrior achieves anything that few sports movies manage, it's exploiting the audiences divided loyalties to create a confrontation where the outcome feels unpredictable. Either outcome would carry its pros and cons, but I believe they succeeded in giving the bout and the film an ending that was satisfying and cathartic without feeling like a cop-out.
Director Gavin O’Connor already did a wonderful job of taking these three talented actors and bringing out some career best work from them, but he makes sure to shoot and cut a film worthy of the performances, but doesn't overshadow them. He shoots the character-driven scenes in the same way he shoots the fights, close-quarters, creating a feeling of intimacy. Inescapably close, you’re pulled into the lives of these men and you share every painful detail; both emotionally and physically.
The fight scenes feel real but still dynamic enough to keep the non-sports enthusiasts, like myself, engrossed. The sound of fist hitting flesh, bodies crashing against canvas or bones straining to breaking point leave you wincing. The sound design in these scenes makes a huge contribution to the impact of the scenes, the tight camera work and great fight choreography only seal it.
The obviousness of the screenplay is not enough to overwhelm the top quality execution. Ideas only becomes a cliché when it is repeated, this happens because the idea worked in the first place, and the key to Warrior‘s success is that everything works. It’s not perfect, it’s certainly not original, but it works. It really works.