Starring: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte
Written by: Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2hrs 20mins

NOMINEE – Academy Award: Best Supporting Actor (Nick Nolte)
NOMINEE – Screen Actors Guild Award: Best Supporting Actor (Nick Nolte)
WINNER – San Diego Film Critics Society Award: Best Supporting Actor (Nick Nolte)
WINNER – Golden Schmoes Award: Unsung Film of the Year
NOMINEE – Golden Schmoes Awards: Favorite Movie of the Year, Biggest Surprise of the Year and Best Supporting Actor (Nick Nolte)
NOMINEE – Chicago Film Critics Association Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Nick Nolte)

“…so many people call it an “inspirational sports drama,” and I never intended it to be a “sports” movie. It’s a drama. The whole idea of it began with the estrangement of two brothers, reconciliation, healing, and forgiveness.” — Director: Gavin O’Connor

Even though I’m not a big sports fan, I must admit that I am a real sucker for a great sports movie and three of my all-time favorite films are ROCKY, MILLION DOLLAR BABY and THE SANDLOT. I think it comes from the fact that the best sports films aren’t about sports at all. Generally, the sport is only a backdrop to place a much deeper character story within and 2011’s WARRIOR fits into this mold perfectly. A story that takes place within the world of MMA fighting (something I know absolutely nothing about) that, under the surface, is about so much more. It’s a story that revolves around a broken family whose script is more interested in the characters that inhabit the film and the struggles they must overcome to find peace within their lives. It’s not about winning the big MMA tournament presented in the plot. It’s a personal story of redemption, forgiveness, responsibility and guilt. The filmmakers effectively explore these themes in a thought-provoking and emotional manner by giving the audience fully realized characters to cheer for both in the MMA cage and, more importantly, out.

The story focuses on three characters, a father and his two sons, each with their own stories to tell and none more important than the other. The film opens with Tommy (Tom Hardy), an ex-marine, coming home to Pittsburgh after being away for 14-years. His first stop is to visit his dad, Paddy (Nick Nolte), and it’s evident from the start that Tommy has only feelings of resentment for his father. Paddy is a recovering alcoholic (just under 1000 days sober) and when Tommy was younger, he and his mom, desperate to escape his father’s abusive ways, left Paddy behind to begin a better life. Paddy is on a path to redemption, trying to put his life back together and hoping to one day gain forgiveness for how he treated his family in the past. Unfortunately, Tommy has no interest in a relationship with his dad other than being trained for an upcoming MMA tournament called SPARTA, which has a five-million-dollar prize. Remembering how well Paddy trained him to wrestle as a kid (Tommy tells him, “That much you were good at.”) and because of the importance of what he plans to do with the money (not to be spoiled here), he decides to ask for Paddy’s help.

Meanwhile, Tommy’s brother, Brendon (Joel Edgerton), who Tommy also hasn’t seen in 14 years, works as a high school physics teacher in Philadelphia. Formerly a UFC fighter, he is now married to his high school sweetheart and they have two kids. He lives a relatively happy life, that is until the bank threatens to foreclose on his house. Desperate for money, he returns to fighting in parking lots against his wife’s wishes. She reminds him, “…we agreed that we weren’t gonna raise our children in a family where their father gets beat up for a living.” When the school finds out about these fights, Brandon is suspended and now more desperate than ever, he decides that he must begin to train to fight even more in order to earn the money needed to save his home. This, of course, leads him (and this is no spoiler, I’m sure everyone will have figured it out before pushing the play button) to a spot in the Sparta event as well.

The story, at times, will seem very familiar to most as the movie checks off a lot of the boxes that are sports film clichés. Still, there is something very special here. Writer/Director Gavin O’Connor (THE ACCOUNTANT) is no stranger to making an interesting sports film. Before WARRIOR, he directed the more popular MIRACLE with Kurt Russell and afterwards, he gave us the impressive THE WAY BACK with Ben Affleck. O’Connor and co-writers Anthony Tambakis (JANE GOT A GUN) & Cliff Dorman (ENTOURAGE) have delivered a well-written story that follows in the traditions of so many sports movies that have come before it. They then take the script one step further by filling it out with multiple complex characters, all of whom have their own very different stories to tell. Instead of centering the script on one main character, WARRIOR gives the audience three character journeys to follow and they’re all treated with equal importance. One story never takes over, as they are perfectly balanced, giving the viewer the time needed to grow and care for each character in very different ways until everything effectively comes together at the end in an emotionally satisfying way.

At two hours and twenty minutes, the film never feels long. Along with his editors, O’Conner has created a tight and well-paced movie. Every scene adds something to the character’s stories, and nothing feels in need of removing. The action provided by the Sparta Tournament, which takes up most of the film’s second hour, can be very exciting at times and will keep the MMA fans engaged, but it’s the character moments that are weaved throughout that give the film its power. Watching these very conflicted characters struggle through their lives and witnessing as they conflict with each other will leave a strong impression on the audience. Right from the start, when Paddy drives up to his house and finds Tommy sitting on his porch, the film’s tone is perfectly set. This is not a happy reunion. The movie opens with an incredible scene of emotional power as Paddy seems genuinely ashamed of his past and Tommy is obviously still holding a lot of resentment bottled up inside. These are real characters with some genuine emotional struggles that they need to work through.

Tommy is a complicated character. He’s not only angry with his father but also has some unresolved issues with his brother. When Tommy and his mother chose to leave, Brendan stayed behind with his father and girlfriend. Brendan explains that it was more complicated than Tommy knew as he ended up marrying his girlfriend and starting a family with her. Tommy doesn’t understand. He feels like his older brother should have joined them and helped look out for their mom and the resentment is something that still affects him deeply. Then, as the story continues to play out, more is discovered regarding Tommy’s past as the writers give the character even more complexity. Things are revealed that seem rather heroic until we are given Tommy’s side of the story. He keeps a lot bottled up inside, feelings that get released when he begins to fight, letting everything loose on his opponents. There are elements of Paddy in Tommy that he must overcome before it destroys him. Tom Hardy (BRONSON), a mostly unknown actor at the time, plays Tommy with incredible range. As he speaks, he does so in a controlled manner, but the viewer can see the rage fighting to come out in the character’s eyes. Hardy seems to effortlessly transform from the caged animal that Tommy becomes in the ring to the calmer, seemingly controlled man he is in the real world and by the end of the film, he effectively merges the two resulting in a climax that is no longer about winning a tournament, as much as it’s about struggling to save his soul.

Joel Edgerton (LOVING) also gives a solid performance as the more strait-laced brother. He plays the character as more sensitive and caring. He seems to have taken his life in the right direction, trying his best to be the man that his father wasn’t. When we first meet him, it’s in his backyard during one of his kid’s birthday parties, literally dressed as a princess. Branden is a loving dad who wants to look out for his family and make sure that they feel safe at home, even if it means risking his life in a backlot fight to earn money to keep a roof over their heads. He is the polar opposite of Tommy, and this works well as the film begins to reveal all the sides of the very differing stories.

Lastly, as a big fan of Nick Nolte (48 HOURS), I feel comfortable saying that this may well be the best performance of his career. It’s one of such honest vulnerability that the viewer can genuinely sense Paddy’s struggle to find forgiveness even though he may not deserve it. Nolte plays him as worn down and mostly defeated. The viewer can really feel his pain as he struggles to pull himself together. Some of the scenes in which he tries to find forgiveness from his sons, only to be rejected, are genuinely heartbreaking. One moment between Paddy and Brandon is especially emotional as the viewer can really feel how hard Paddy is trying, yet still, understand why Brandon feels the need to keep his family safely away from him. Nolte gives a heartfelt performance deserving of the Academy Award nomination he received.

Whenever I hear people discussing their favorite sports films, it seems that all the same movies are brought up. ROCKY, HOOP DREAMS, RUDY, HOOSIERS, etc. Unfortunately, one film that never seems to be a part of the conversation is one of my personal favorites. For some reason, when it was first released into theaters, WARRIOR did very little business at the box office and not enough people know of its existence. Still, WARRIOR is a heartfelt sports film that effectively fills itself with some real human moments that make it a real winner in the genre, as well as one of the best overall films of 2011.


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