Sometimes a movie has "face value." That's the case with Warrior, a masculine family drama set within the world of mixed martial arts competition. Sure, the film delivers on its surface promise of Rocky-style inspirational sports-drama theatrics, but it also boasts amazing faces: from the soul-boring eyes of Tom Hardy to the determined grimaces of Joel Edgerton to Nick Nolte's craggy visage, desperation for redemption written all over it.
Hardy (Inception) plays bruiser Tommy Conlon, an ex-Marine looking for purpose and a payday by proving himself as an MMA fighter; as a high school wrestler coached by his father Paddy, Tommy has already tasted championship—if no one else does, father and son know what Tommy is capable of. Upon Tommy's homecoming from Iraq, the alcoholic Paddy's pleas for forgiveness cannot penetrate his son's hard-earned callouses. Nevertheless, Tommy allows the old man to coach him once again, with the understanding that "He's just some old vet that I train with. He means nothing to me."
For estranged brother and son Brendan (Edgerton), a championship has perhaps less to do with proving something to himself than with taking a last desperate grab at financial salvation—or are those motivations are one and the same? Underwater and facing foreclosure, the high-school physics teacher and his wife (Jennifer Morrison) have three jobs between them and a daughter with heart trouble. When Brendan's MMA moonlighting gets him suspended without pay from his day job, he contemplates what seems impossible: the $5 million championship of the Sparta Tournament, "the Super Bowl of mixed martial arts."
Why, that's the very same competition in Tommy's sights, and if you can't guess who ends up in the final bracket of the single-elimination tournament, God bless you and welcome to a little something called the American motion picture. Undaunted, O'Connor straightens his spine of melodrama and focuses on the task of building up the film's emotional muscle. And so Warrior becomes "face time" well spent, with micro-expressive mugs speaking much louder than the relatively spare dialogue. When these family members do have it out, the punch is all the harder for the windup; if there's water under the bridge, so far it's drowning them—take your pick of sports-talk metaphor.
Last year's The Fighter carried, for better or worse, the extra weight of a true-story basis, while Warrior's baggage is the Rocky franchise. Rather than disguising the similarities, director Gavin O'Connor and his co-writers Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman all but flaunt them, setting their working-class-hero story primarily in Rocky Balboa's Philadelphia stomping grounds, crafting a training montage (juiced up with split-screen), building to that foregone ring matchup, and throwing in a fearsome "mighty mythical Russian"—fighting for the first time on U.S. soul—for good measure. And say what you will, but the well-staged fights get their (right) hooks in to the audience.
Though Warrior throws in allusions to Moby Dick and Diogenes, the real archetypes are "the frontrunner" and the "underdog" (in discovering mutual jealousies and resentments between the brothers, one might wonder which is which). Like either of its heroes, the implausible, ingratiatingly manipulative Warrior may be middleweight, but you wouldn't want to bet against it.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]