Warrior (2011) PG-13

Despite getting high praise from critics and audiences, this film epically boomed at the box office. It didn't come as a huge surprise, mainly because nobody has ever heard of Tom Hardy (Inception, Bronson) or Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom, The Square). Yes, I'm looking at you. And it's a darn shame because not only is this an intense, heartfelt film, Hardy and Edgerton are terrific actors. Hardy first caught my attention in Nicolas Winding Refn's (Drive, Valhalla Rising) Bronson. He's simply electric in that trippy, entertaining "biopic." I'm no stranger to Edgerton either. His best two films are The Square and Animal Kingdom, both films are pure Australian gold. You haven't seen the last of these two young(ish) stars in the making. They both have a big couple years ahead of them that will make or break their careers. My money is on make.

Hardy plays Tommy Riordan, an ex-Marine with a nasty streak. He's channeled his hatred towards his alcoholic, verbally abusive Father (Nick Nolte) over the years. The movie begins with a mildly drunk Tommy paying a visit to his now sober and religious dad. Tommy is still distraught over the way Paddy (Nolte) treated him and his mother when he was a child. Paddy apologizes numerous times and tries to convince Tommy that he's a changed man. Paddy hasn't seen his son in over a decade and is a little puzzled to why Tommy is on his front porch.

Tommy doesn't bash his skull in, although he aches to. Tommy, whose spent many years in the U.S. Marine Corps and the rest of his time in Washington state, is now back in Pittsburgh (at least for the time being). Tommy isn't your average dude. He's got obvious abandonment issues and is extremely anti-social. Let's just say you wouldn't want to get into a scrap with this guy. He would grind your teeth into a powder with his fist, then later snort it for his own enjoyment. I'm exaggerating of course, but I wouldn't put it past him. He's chiseled by the gods themselves and probably enjoys hurting people. That doesn't mean he hasn't a heart; he's a human being like the rest of us, er, at least I think as much.

His long lost brother, Brendan Conlon (Edgerton), is a family man and a teacher. They have serious financial issues, but who doesn't, right? His wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) is a worriers worrier, but she has a good heart. You'll certainly recognize Morrison from "House M.D." if you watch that type of stuff. Lord knows I don't. Brendan and Tommy have one big thing in common, they're both MMA fighters. Tommy used to be an all-state wrestler in high school before going off to the Marines. Now he's a beefed-up ex-marine with a serious chip on his shoulder. When Brendan isn't teaching biology, he's outside of local strip joints getting black eyes and his ribs cracked (inside the ring, of course). He tells Tess he's merely a bouncer and always has "rough" nights. Eventually she catches on and so does the local school board. Brendan is suspended when word gets out that he's a part-time MMA wrestler/boxer/fighter/whatever. Tess wants to file charges against the school district, but the lawyer alone will put them in the poor-house.

Meanwhile, Tommy goes to the local boxing gym for recreation. A local boy, whose a serious championship contender, injures his practice teammate and needs someone to fight. Nobody is chomping at the bit to break their jaw or get concussed, who knew? Tommy shows interest, and is granted a chance to fight Colt. Colt (Maximiliano Hernandez) doesn't realize what he's getting himself in to. It takes about 30 seconds for Tommy to knock Colt unconscious. Colt's trainer sees some obvious potential in Tommy. There's a huge MMA tournament coming up in Atlantic City called "Sparta" that Tommy is interested in. The problem is that only the best eight fighters in the world get invited.

Colt's trainer gets Tommy an invite after a video of the knockout hits the web and generates some serious buzz around him. Tommy asks his darling Father to train him. He exclaims that he may have failed as a Father, but never as a trainer. It isn't long before Paddy has Tommy whipped into shape. The first order of business was for Tommy to kick his addiction to pills. Probably steriods and the like.

Brendan has now become a full-time MMA fighter for the second time in his life; he fought for a few years before becoming a teacher. He hires a part-time trainer, Frank (Frank Grillo), to help him win fights and eventually get some big-time cash flow going. After breezing through some garbage competition, Brendan gets a chance to show off against some big boys. He gets roughed up a bit, but fares well.

Sparta looms near, and Tommy is geared up to crush the competition. Paddy tries, day after day, to mend his relationship with his second born. Tom doesn't budge, not for a second, but they're get along a little better (which is a start). With just a few days before Sparta is set to begin, Frank's main challenger tears an ACL and Brendan asks for the invite. Frank hesitates at first, but he doesn't really have a choice, he must allow Brendan to take part in Sparta despite the fact that these guys have some outrageous muscle mass and height on him. Tess loses sleep over the fact that Brendan may have to face undefeated Russian giant, Koba (Kurt Angle), who's a modern day version of Ivan Drago. I was waiting for him to say, "If he dies, he dies."

So, now Tommy and Brendan are set to battle in the same eight-man tournament. If you've seen the trailers, you know what's ahead. In case you haven't and have never seen a fictional sports film before then I won't spoil the obvious finals match-up for you. I will say that where some sports film fail is the ending, but not here. The final scene is an emotional roller coaster ride that is made all the more effective thanks to a beautiful score by Mark Isham (A River Runs Through It, Nell), mixed with a song by The National.

Look, there's nothing all that special about Warrior. Nothing special about the message, the method or the plot. But the performances are rich and often powerful. The film-making is above average and the fights are for the most part believable. It's a rare film in which there is a final showdown, and you're not certain who you're rooting for. There are some minor twists and turns, which won't shock or surprise too many people but they move along the plot.

Hardy is fierce, and will soon become one of the most coveted actors in the business. Edgerton is never bad, and may become a household name someday, time will tell. Old-timer Nick Nolte (Cape Fear, Tropic Thunder) turns in one of his best performances of his career; possibly his best. He was made for the this role. An aged, drained, guilt-driven, sad, old man with nothing but a bum ticker and a head full of bad memories. Noah Emmerich (The Truman Show, Miracle) and Kevin Dunn (Transformers, Almost Heroes) both have small, but pretty effective roles. Emmerich is one of the most underused and underrated supporting actors out there.

You have to give props to writer/director Gavin O'Connor (Miracle, Pride and Glory) for maturing a bit, and finally putting together a solid film from start to finish. Miracle is enjoyable, but extremely cheesy and horribly acted. Pride and Glory is a mess, but does have a few very effective scenes. This film has all the pieces in place, and the result is one of the best films of 2011. See it.


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