When Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), nearly a thousand days sober, returned home one night he found someone waiting for him outside his house. That someone was his long lost son Tommy (Tom Hardy), who does not explain where he has been but accepts his father's invitation to get inside, though he wants him to have a drink with him, which Paddy is not prepared to do. Tommy asks him about his mother, who used to be beaten by her husband during his drunken rages until his family left him, and he tells him he found out she died a while back. But what of his older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton)?
Ah, there lies a tale, taking up the rest of Warrior which started out the story of a damaged working class family in Pittsburgh and turned into the twenty-first century equivalent of a Rocky movie. That this century already had that in Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa did not deter director Gavin O'Connor and his writers, and among those who caught this the opinion was generally this was a new classic in that vein, and perhaps even better in their minds, yet somehow the film did not quite catch on with the greater percentage of the public and remained a cult item with the faithful who had taken a chance on what sounded rather hackneyed.
But what O'Connor did here was very entertaining, and not in spite of the fact it was indeed hackneyed: because it was so familiar in its conventions, it managed to transcend the form and become vital and worthwhile. The premise was that the two Conlon brothers were both cage fighting exponents of the mixed martial arts technique, and had to make their way, struggling all the while, to the top of their game for two very different reasons. Those reasons were not stated bluntly at the start, as we had to wait for the information to be fed piecemeal to the audience, a simple but effective manner of deepening the emotional response the filmmakers had lined up.
What we do know early on is that Tommy is an ex-marine, who is recognised as he tries for the championship by one of the soldiers he saved back in Iraq, so he is your average war hero for flagwaving purposes, right? Wrong, as there is more to his tale than that as we discover, along with the reasons he and Brendan fell out some years before. The other brother is now a physics teacher who risks losing his house because he cannot make ends meet, and the fear of putting his young family through that is not something he can bear, a spot of social conscience in a work that could have been pure soap opera. Thus, as they are both ex-fighters, the sole option open to them is to go back into the arena and try for the grand prize in Atlantic City.
Of course, from some angles pure soap opera was exactly what this was, yet rather than deny it the movie embraced it, stating yes, we want you to be on your feet during the brutal matches, on the edge of your seat when not knowing who will emerge the victor, and with tears in your eyes by the emotional finale. Thus in other hands Warrior could have been a shopping list of clichés presented in tired and cynical fashion, except that they had a way of making the audience really believe them. By pitting one underdog story we had seen many times before against another of similar ilk, it left you genuinely unsure of where this would end up, as Tommy may seem like the "bad" brother - he wears the black shorts, Brendan sports the white - but he has his reasons for ending up the broken man he is, aiming for that redemption... see what I mean? If you try and explain this it sounds like the most tedious thing ever, but crucially it played as if all this was fresh as a daisy, buoyed by excellent performances and true tension. If this sounded even vaguely promising, take a chance and you wouldn't regret it. Music by Mark Isham.