The ultimate test of a films potency comes not when a story with its twists and turns forges new trails into unfamiliar terrain. The ultimate test may very well be if a film can take a familiar tale and make it suspenseful. WARRIOR does just that. The loosely woven story takes on not one, but rather several familiar stories, of brothers at odds, a father remorseful for his parental failings, and underdog fighters battling not for the glory of victory, but for something more important. It does so with enough ancillary surprises, and clever spins on classic tropes, to add a piquant sense of discovery, as well as some genuinely gripping suspense.
The brothers are Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brenden (Joel Edgerton), sibling rivals for the affections of their wrestling coach father (Nick Nolte), whose boozing and wife-beating broke the family up 14 years ago. Sober for 1000 days and newly religious, hes offered the chance to be part of at least one sons life again when Tommy, shows up on his doorstep out of the blue and asks him to be his coach again. Where Tommy has been all this time is a mystery to his family. Brenden, on the other hand, has stuck relatively close to home, has married, retired from mixed martial arts matches, fathered two children, and become a physics teacher. Hes also in the verge of losing his home to foreclosure. Each son finds his way to the suitably hyped world championship of mixed martial arts. Neither is given a chance, and the story flows naturally from there.
If the script takes a few jolting leaps from Pennsylvania to Iraq to Texas, its balanced out by dynamic directing, great performances that go more for the heart than the gut, and dialogue that crackles. There is also just enough element of doubt as to particulars to keep the audience engaged until the final match. There the focus is not on the body blows being meted out in the cage, but rather on using them to externalize family relationships outside of that cage. By emphasizing the tangle of hurt and hope played out between father and son, brother and brother, husband and wife, the story stays compelling, particularly the way each brother has chosen to deal with the disintegration of his family. Tommy with a sullen edge that Hardy imbues with both rage and pain, Brenden sublimating it into an upbeat attitude and the way he cherishes his wife and kids, with Edgerton giving real depth to Brendens desperation to hold things together when their finances fall apart. There is also a cunning trick as the situations strain credulity to the breaking point. As Brenden enters the cage for his first match, one of the fight announcers talks serious trash about it to the point that it becomes reverse psychology, prompting a sympathetic reaction from the audience while simultaneously acknowledging how far credulity has been stretched and beating the audience to the, youll pardon the word, punch, thereby evoking the proper mood for a suspension of disbelief.
The ongoing metaphor of Moby Dick, Pops favored audio book, is thin, very thin. The premise is, too. Is it realistic? No. But its taking the same risk as the fighters in the cage. Is it gripping? Yes?