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Despite triteness, ‘Warrior’ shines


Director: Gavin O’Connor

Stars: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton

Genre: Action, Drama, Sport

Rated: PG-13 for
sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material

Running time: 2 hours and 19 minutes

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:46AM


“Warrior” is one of those movies that, if you were to describe it to friends in an attempt to tell them how much you enjoyed it, would sound ridiculous.

Do it anyway. Implausible and far too reliant on coincidence, with a mixed martial arts tournament the setting for the climax (almost the entire second half of the movie, actually), director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor’s movie is nevertheless gripping and emotionally satisfying.

Outstanding performances by Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton are a big part of the reason why.

Hardy is as good an actor as there is working now; his intensity here is amazing. Nolte hasn’t been this good in a long time. And Edgerton holds his own with both.

Paddy Conlon (Nolte) is a recovering alcoholic who drives up to his Pittsburgh home one cold night and sees his son Tommy (Hardy) sitting on the stoop.

It’s a shock — Tommy and Paddy’s former wife, after years of abuse, left town long ago; Paddy hasn’t seen Tommy in 14 years.

In the interim Tommy has served, like his old man did, in the Marines. Much more he won’t say. With good reason, it turns out.

Tommy is seething with resentment and anger, and Paddy is powerless to do anything but apologize for his past behavior.

You were more interesting when you were drunk, Tommy tells his father, and you think that maybe Paddy believes it.

A legendary high-school wrestler trained by Paddy, Tommy begins sparring in a local gym. A video of him destroying a top MMA contender goes viral on YouTube.

Soon Tommy sets his sights on Sparta, an MMA tournament in Atlantic City with a $5 million payout to the winner, and he wants his father to help him. Eager to spend any time with his son, Paddy agrees.

Meanwhile Brendan (Edgerton), Paddy’s other son, teaches high school in a nearby suburb. Brendan also has little to do with Paddy and has enough other problems of his own to occupy him.

He and his wife, Tess (an underused Jennifer Morrison), struggle to make their mortgage payments and are in danger of losing their home.

To make ends meet, Brendan fights in cheesy pseudo-MMA bouts in the parking lots of strip clubs; one such fight gets him suspended from his teaching job.

Desperate for money and against his wife’s wishes, Brendan wrangles his way into the Sparta competition, as well.

Where this leads you might well guess. It doesn’t really matter. Nor does O’Connor’s giving more than nearly half the movie to the competition — he shoots it so well, and makes the fights so savagely compelling, that the somewhat predictable nature of the story is easily overlooked.

Tommy and Brendan are opposites in the octagon, where the fights take place.

Tommy is almost comically straightforward, a brute who simply pummels his opponents into submission in short order.

Brendan absorbs punishment like a masochistic sponge, waiting for the other fighter to tire, to slip up, willing to take abuse if it means achieving his goal. Yes, their tactics reflect much about their lives.

The real objective here, of course, isn’t just winning the competition, but healing old psychic wounds, even as new physical ones are opened. These are painful injuries by any standard; neither type is for the squeamish.

Hardy, Nolte and Edgerton see to that, in unflinching, raw performances. Thanks to them, “Warrior” moves beyond its somewhat trite trappings.

It’s a surprisingly moving film. While the fight scenes are unquestionably thrilling, the movie’s best bits are not about winning and losing, but pain and, ultimately, forgiveness.

Bill Goodykoontz, of The Arizona Republic, is the chief film critic for Gannett News Service.

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Twitter: goodyk.

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