Fight films have it tough from the outset. There’s only so many ways a film about smacking another guy in the face can end and consequently they frequently follow a well-travelled trajectory – the number of climactic sequences in which an underdog fights his way to the top despite overwhelming odds are probably too numerous to name.
But occasionally a film rises above its conventional narrative and really excels. David O Russell’s The Fighter was one such film, which, with powerful performances and a strong cast, punched its way into award contention. Warrior is another film which does just that – a superior sports movie lifted by outstanding turns which, while conventional, nevertheless pack considerable punch.
Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) is a taciturn ex-marine who hasn’t fought for 14 years. He reluctantly seeks out his estranged father (Nick Nolte) to train him but doesn’t want anything to do with him personally as he’s still bitter about the alcoholic mistreatment of his mother all those years ago.
Meanwhile Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a dedicated family man, is drawn back into the ring despite it being a career path which he has long since abandoned, when his job as a physics teacher can’t pay the bills. Inevitably the two men are thrown together in a mixed martial arts tournament called Sparta, from which only one man can emerge victorious.
That the two will end up facing each other in the ring is a foregone conclusion but their back-stories are told with such heart and conviction that you end up rooting for both fighters. This isn’t simply “Rocky vs. the next big bad” as even up to the final bell, it’s hard to predict who will win.
Brendan is instantly likeable – he’s well-regarded by his pupils who call him Mr C instead of sir; he sits up at nights repairing his daughter’s broken toys and he seems like a thoroughly nice guy. He’s a thoughtful man and a thoughtful fighter, using strategy and technique to win his fights.
Tommy is the other side of the coin, a hulking force who stalks the cage like a prowling bear; a physical presence who often takes his opponents out in one shot. There are dark hints about his past, about the torment that his mother suffered at the hand of his father, about the horrors that he saw in Afghanistan but for the most part he remains a mystery. He’s much harder to like as his overbearing gruffness can often seem childish and he frequently lashes out like a wounded animal but thanks to Tom Hardy’s superb performance wins us over surprisingly quickly.
On paper, this really shouldn’t work and it could have easily suffocated under the heavy weight of fight movie clichés but Edgerton and Hardy deliver such heartfelt and convincing performances that Warrior rises above the familiar tropes common to sports movies. You can almost imagine director Gavin O’Connor shouting “Damn the clichés! Full speed ahead!”
The fights are brutal but well choreographed and the attention to detail does credit to the sport (which is still struggling for mainstream acceptance) which will satisfy both fans and newcomers alike. This all builds to a climax that you can see coming from the opening credits but is still genuinely uplifting and gut-wrenchingly exciting. A knockout.