Whether because of its generic title, the stale tropes of the sports drama genre or a seemingly barefaced effort to tap the rabid legion of mixed martial arts fans, I was totally unprepared for the quality and gritty emotional depth of Warrior. In truth, the film's MMA tableau is incidental—the film could just as easily be about boxing, tennis or even chess. Its real lessons about betrayal, familial strife and America's widening stratification are universal and timeless.
The film concerns the Conlon clan, a Pittsburgh family ripped asunder by the failures of Paddy (Nick Nolte), its alcoholic patriarch. We learn that his dying wife and estranged son Tommy (Tom Hardy) mysteriously left town long ago, and that Tom and his older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) don't speak, and that Brendan doesn't let Paddy see his grandchildren. As with Blue Valentine, the consequences are achingly apparent even if the reasons are sometimes unexplained.
On the eve of Paddy's 1,000th day of sobriety, Tommy unexpectedly shows up and asks his father, a former pancratiast, to train him for an upcoming MMA tournament. Meanwhile, across town, Brendan has also returned to the fighting life after suffering personal setbacks. Thus the brothers are set toward a finale of the crowd-pleasing sort that writer-director Gavin O'Connor employed for Miracle, his 2004 melodrama about the 1980 Olympic hockey team. Free of the need to Disneyfy, O'Connor creates something more genuine that manages to explore such diverse topics as predatory lending and the war in Iraq while also employing the likes of Beethoven, Moby-Dick and the ancient Greek athlete Theogenes.
O'Connor's expert pacing helps gloss over his script's few missteps, but the glitzy finale in Atlantic City almost distracts from Warrior's quieter, more affecting moments.
The film's unquestioned revelation is Hardy, whose performance is—dare I say—Brando-esque. O'Connor's dialogue is authentic and breezy, sublime and heart-wrenching, and tailor-made for his actors' talents. And, the climactic contest is an exercise of emotional catharsis by means of physical brutality.
Comparisons between Warrior and Rocky are as misguided as they are inevitable. Instead, the film is a hard-edged story of loss, redemption and forgiveness, the cinematic contender that the overrated The Fighter should have been.
Correction (Sept. 7): Miracle is a 2004 melodrama about the 1980 Olympic hockey team (not a 1980 melodrama).