A Street Kid Named Desire
Grade: A -
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Starring: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte and Jennifer Morrison
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 19 min.
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 Shakespearean story revolves around the fractured Conlon clan, a Pittsburgh family ripped apart years ago by its alcoholic patriarch, Paddy (Nick Nolte). The details behind why Paddy’s dying wife and estranged son Tom (Tom Hardy) left town, Tom and his older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) don’t speak or Brendan doesn’t even let Paddy see his grandchildren remain largely unexplained. But, as with Blue Valentine, the consequences are achingly apparent even if the reasons for them are not.
On the eve of Paddy’s 1,000th day of newfound sobriety, Tom, a former amateur wrestling champion and U.S. Marine, appears on his father’s stoop, still angry but asking for the former pancratiast’s guidance to train for an upcoming MMA tournament. On the other side of town, Brendan, an ex-MMA fighter, steps back into the octagon after he’s suspended from his job as a high school physics teacher and faces the foreclosure of his home.
This path puts the brothers on a collision course fed by the crowd-pleasing knack that writer-director Gavin O’Connor employed for Miracle, his pom-pom waving melodrama about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Unchained by the shackles of Disneyfication, however, O’Connor creates something more genuine...more informed. Against the backdrop of a full-realized family drama, Warrior critiques predatory lending and the war in Iraq while also managing to incorporate references to Beethoven, Moby-Dick and the ancient Greek athlete Theogenes.
O’Connor’s expert pace and execution papers over the film’s few missteps, including a needless, hole-riddled subplot involving Tom’s recent military service. And although well-produced, the glitzy Atlantic City tournament that forms the film’s finale distracts from Warrior’s quieter, more affecting moments.
The film’s unquestioned revelation is Hardy, whose performance is – dare I say – Brando-esque, both physically and stylistically. Backed by a script blessed with authentic and breezy dialogue, Hardy’s scenes opposite the equally wondrous Edgerton and Nolte are sublime and heart-wrenching. Tom is both unwilling and unable to conjure a modicum of compassion for a contrite, sober Paddy until the old man falls off the wagon, the only state in which Tom has ever really known his father. 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 massively overrated The Fighter should have been.