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WARRIOR Review: Acting Heavyweights Thrive in Tight Fight Film

Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton play feuding brothers in this mixed martial arts drama that sticks rigidly to formula but somehow emerges triumphant.

rating: 4

If you're into fight movies, chances are you'll have a fair idea what to expect from Warrior, the mixed martial arts film directed and co-written by Gavin O'Connor. It adheres to the formula of the likes of Rocky pretty much verbatim. Training montages? You bet. Ageing underdog protagonist with something left to prove? There's two of them. A high stakes, once in a lifetime tournament? Most definitely. A troubled personal life? Right again. Like last year's Oscar-nominated The Fighter, it's on this last part in fact that Warrior really goes to town, being at its core a dramatic three-hander between estranged members of the Conlon family: Tom Hardy as brooding, unforgiving Iraq War vet Tommy, Animal Kingdom's Joel Edgerton as his older brother Brendan, a high school physics teacher and family man with bills to pay, and Nick Nolte as their absent father Paddy - whose alcoholism split the family apart and forced the brothers to pick sides. At the film's start, none of the three are on speaking terms. Paddy hasn't seen his grandkids (Brendan's children) for years and neither of them ever hear from the nomadic and self-destructive Tommy. But when the opportunity to win big money in a highly publicised MMA tournament comes up, both brothers enter: Tommy seeks out his father (his former trainer from younger days as a promising wrestler) on the condition that they only talk about training, whilst Brendan enters just to pay the bills after being suspended from his job for doing some underground fighting on the side. It barely qualifies as a "spoiler" to say that the tournament will set them on a course towards a redemptive head-to-head, brother versus brother finale and, thanks to the actors involved, it's gripping from start to finish. Yes, it plays through every cliché, but Warrior packs an emotional punch with the scenes between Nolte and Hardy particularly hard-hitting. Edgerton too is highly watchable as an all-round decent guy who you really come to route for. It's a pretty disciplined animal of a screenplay too, without any romantic sub-plots to slow it down as our attention remains focussed on the brothers - and on the fighting. I don't know anything about MMA. I couldn't tell you if the fights, and the antics around them (the media coverage, the training), are realistic or otherwise. Former WWE wrestler Kurt Angle seemed to raise some derisory laughs at the screening I attended as a Russian fighter called Koba, billed by the film as the undefeatable best in the world - though I don't know if this because his character lacked credibility or just the mere fact of his presence. What I can say is that all the fight sequences are totally thrilling: the sort that make you embarrass yourself in the theatre as you enthusiastically punch the air (is that just me?). Part of the reason the fights work so well, even for someone so transparently disinterested in the sport itself, is that there is no separation between character and action. The dramatic story continues through - and is informed by - the fights and the fighting styles of both main characters are an extension of their personae, with Tommy about enraged blunt force and Brendan about determination and stamina. What's more, this is a movie with its heart firmly in the right place. It might very well end up appealing to the Neanderthal mentality that enabled the success of last year's testosterone-fest The Expendables, but this is, by comparison, a thoughtful and considered film about forgiveness and conquering one's demons. Warrior might be a fairly conventional fight movie in many respects, but it's a damned fine one that more than holds its own against the challengers in its weight class. Warrior is released in the U.S. today and in the UK on September 23rd.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.