REVIEW: Warrior, the Tale of Two Rockys, Packs a Potent Emotional Punch
There's a moment at the end of Gavin O'Connor's MMA drama Warrior in which two men who have been relentlessly beaten and pummeled in the octagon stand dripping with exhaustion, rivers of sweat mingling with the tears running down their faces. It doesn't matter that you can't tell the sweat from the tears; that's partly the point of Warrior anyway, which makes you feel every emotional wound just as acutely, if not more so, than the bruising, rib-crunching body blows. Yes, this is a mixed martial arts movie (distributed by genre specialists Lionsgate, no less). But it's also one of the most heart-wrenching and deeply felt films of the year.
That's not to say Warrior falls all the way into the tried-and-true-and-overdone terrain of "inspirational sports movie," although it does wade through its fair share of genre clichés and calculatedly affecting storytelling tropes. It's Rocky redux in a sense, an underdog fighting tale set against the backdrop of working-class America.
The key difference is, in Warrior there are two Rockys. Brendan Conlon (Aussie Joel Edgerton) is a high school physics teacher in Philadelphia struggling to keep a roof over the heads of his wife (Jennifer Morrison, in an exquisitely balanced supporting turn) and their two young daughters following a mortgage-draining medical crisis. When bouncing on the side doesn't quite bring in enough cash to keep them afloat, Brendan goes back to the pre-teaching gig that pays well but risks doing damage, both physical and marital: Arena fighting at the local strip club.
Meanwhile, over in Brendan's hometown of Pittsburgh, his estranged father, ex-alcoholic and formerly abusive wrestling coach Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), comes home from a 12-step meeting to find his long lost other son Tommy (Tom Hardy) on his stoop. Tommy's more of an enigma, to his father and to the viewer; self-destructive, closed-off, and bitter over a past family rift that goes unspoken, he's running from something he won't share with anyone. A chance opportunity at the local gym gives Tommy the break he's been looking for -- entry into an internationally-televised mixed martial arts tournament called Sparta, with a $5 million cash prize to the last man standing.
And so we launch headlong into the road to Sparta, following both Conlon boys as they wallop and wrestle their way toward the championship, and -- of course -- toward the inevitable brotherly showdown in the ring. Their shared history, gathered in snatches of pained conversation over the course of the film, explains why a rift remains between them and their reformed, lonely father -- and also why it's so damn hard for these men to forgive the wrongs of the past, as remembered differently by each through the haze of memory and hurt. Paddy, at least, has come the farthest from that tumultuous family history, but then he's also the cause of it all. The realization consumes him, reflected in his obsessive reliance on an on-the-nose but fitting book-on-tape cassette of Moby Dick.
But despite Paddy's efforts at reconciliation (and a heartbreaking scene in which Nolte's Paddy, rejected for the umpteenth time by Hardy's Tommy, falls off the wagon in the most devastating way -- just one of Warrior's surprising, award-worthy moments), this is Brendan and Tommy's story. One's lithe and composed, strategic, a family man; the other brawny and explosive, driven by pain, a loner -- two sides of man and masculinity, deep readers might note, struggling to reconcile against all odds.
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