Ah, brotherly love.

Warrior is a movie I should have hated. It is manipulative, cheesy, and cliche-ridden to such an extent that one or two scenes, the only objectively bad ones in the film, fall completely flat in spite of all the goodwill it is somehow able to generate in spite of itself.

So it is that Warrior is a somewhat archetypal fight movie/family drama that is pretty fucking great even if it does have a black eye.

Mostly, Warrior succeeds because it doesn’t take any shortcuts. Lesser movies present characters, story beats, or plot twists with which a versed audience will have some familiarity and uses that familiarity to cheat the story. This is often done in action movies, especially superhero movies (Green Lantern for example) but is also present in formula-oriented dramas. Fight movies tend to be somewhat formulaic, thanks to Rocky and the plethora of similar sports movies that are made and released (and do fairly well) on a consistent basis.

The film’s fights are fast-paced, kinetic, and visceral. 

It helps Warrior that it isn’t trying to be just any one of those familiar stories. We know the underdog story, for example, so well that only a pretty fresh spin on it is really going to work. Warrioris an underdog story for sure, but it’s also a story about sons and fathers, brotherhood, duty, and pride. It’s themes are masculine, universal, and positive. That it stacks the deck by contriving backstory for the two protagonists that borders on the cartoonish might count against the film and probably should, but I think it is well-mitigated both by the performances of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton and by the almost-always strong writing from Gavin O’Connor (who also directed) and his writing partners Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman.

Even though I am usually very skeptical about movies that employ this many writers, Warrior works better because it is sometimes episodic and, in spite of its intimacy, is also a bit sprawling. I think it might be the case, though, that the one or two dives into truly ludicrous shit the movie takes might be pinned on the problems inherent to so many cooks in the kitchen.

Tom Hardy is at his absolutely best in Warrior.

If you’ve seen the trailer than you know Warrior is about a huge MMA tournament in which two brothers find themselves pitted against each other. These brothers are Tommy and Brendan Conlon, separated for 14 years by their parents’ divorce, and pretty much strangers to each other. The film shows us the circumstances by which they come back into each others’ lives, mostly centered on their individual reasons for trying to get in on Sparta, the aforementioned tournament. In the mix is Nick Nolte as Paddy Conlon, their recovered alcoholic father who also happens to be an ex-fighter who raised them both to be top-notch fighters as well.

Nolte’s performance is incredibly moving. He is sort of the MVP of the movie and pulls it out of a character who, on paper, is a dime a dozen. Paddy tries his best to reach out to both his sons with mixed results. Tommy asks him to train him but keeps him utterly at arm’s length as a father. Brendan, meanwhile, sees that relationship as another example of their father choosing one brother over the other. The points of pain, regret, and alienation that disconnect these three are all over the movie but less in big speeches or emotional scenes and more in the performances themselves. All three actors are doing career-best work here with Hardy especially knocking it out of the park.

Edgerton isn’t well known yet but Warrior should be a huge breakout role for him.

Part of the central conflicts that make this movie work are, at an outside level, about how the audience reacts to the inevitable confrontation between the brothers. Brendan is the underdog, a somewhat over-the-hill former UFC fighter who was never amazing but is driven above and beyond by the pressures facing his family. He’s a schoolteacher, a warm and funny guy that everybody seems to like. He’s got major heart and it’s why you root for him. Tommy, on the other hand, is a beast. He’s single-minded, laconic, and a bulldog in the ring. He is a much more ferocious fighter than Brendan, who tends toward tactical wrestling moves more than brute strength, and is able to turn that ferocity into opportunity after beating down a contender during a sparring match. Tommy is a crowd-pleaser and appeals to that “holy fuck” factor that watching a guy with such intense physicality and singularity of purpose often inspires (see Bronson for another example of Hardy doing this, it’s crazy good). He’s also a mystery to everyone, keeping his own counsel and ignoring the media-pandering and showmanship of the sport.

Both of these guys have a lot to offer the audience. It’s similar to how, in Troy, you really didn’t know whether to root for Hector or Achilles and wound up probably rooting for both. Of course, the Conlons get a happier ending than those two.

I don’t know if Nolte has ever been as good or as heart-breaking as he is in this movie.

This brings me to a bit of a spoiler which, by the end of the movie, shouldn’t really surprise anyone anyway.

The ending is pretty intense. You might feel a bit bad for being moved by it, but I definitely choked up. As the Conlons beat the tar out of each other, Tommy going on even after his shoulder is dislocated, you hear About Today by The National (awesome, awesome band) playing over their shouts, grunts, the smack of their fists. Between that song and Brendan’s face and anguished cries for Tommy to stop, it’s a challenge remembering that this is fairly manipulative. But by now, the movie has earned this, I think, it’s allowed to go big with the catharsis after it has spent so much time painstakingly sketching out these two’s lives, their motivations, and their essential goodness. They deserve to reconcile.

One of the reasons I think I liked the ending as much as I did was because I feel like the writers get that catharsis can sometimes come at the end of a sharp exchange of words or even a fist. I like movies about family dysfunction, especially about fucked up brothers who fail to reason with each other. Even though there are cliches here, there’s also an emotional honesty and intimacy that counters the broader parts.

You can’t see it here, but the O’Connor gets downright stylistic during the training montages.

Those broader parts are, however, sometimes way too fucking broad. The blackeye I spoke of mostly comes from a scene where Brendan’s physics students try to convince their principal to let them broadcast Sparta in the school gym since everybody is rooting for Brendan. After the principal says no, the kids walk out into the hall and truly bombastic sad music plays while they look all forlorn and defeated. It’s a laughable moment and it chips at the credibility the movie has til-then maintained by being as straight-faced and earnest about the cheesier stuff as possible.

On the other hand, there are also story beats that go a little too far. I think it’s enough that Brendan wants to save his house. His daughter doesn’t have to have heart problems too. Of course, it’s supposed to be paying for that shit that causes the financial issues that lead to the house being threatened. I wish they’d left it at the house because that alone is plenty of nice commentary on the mortgage crisis in the states. Then there’s Tommy. It’s enough that he wants to take care of his dead friend’s family. Did he need to superheroically save a bunch of soldiers from drowning too?

The movie goes pretty far out of its way to show that these guys are heroic, good men in spite of their origins. That’s nice and all, but too far is too far and these elements do threaten to work against the audience and induce cringing, laughter, and rolled eyes that might obfuscate the good stuff. When movies go too stupid, even for a moment, it can sometimes be difficult to trust them again and take subsequent stuff at face value. Warrior is a movie that heavily flirts with that issue, an issue which can often sink an otherwise excellent film.

At the end of the day, if nothing else, the movie’s got some pretty great and frequent fights.

I think the reasons why I was able to overlook the faults in Warrior more than could generally be expected of me should be thoroughly explained by now. There is, however, one more thing that I’d like to praise the movie for. I’m not a big fan of MMA though I am interested in martial arts and like a good fight scene as much as anyone. I think that Warrior is the best movie about MMA ever made and should be held as a flagship fight movie for that particular subgenre (boxing has its own, as do other types of martial arts or sports movies). One of the reasons why this is the case, besides the fact that it’s a pretty great movie that also happens to include MMA, is because it has such a solid grasp on what MMA fights seem to really be like.

Not being a huge fan, I could be mistaken, but I have the sense that they embraced the oft-times systematic and repetitive nature of these fights as the combatants tend to stick to techniques that work for them and adhere to their particular styles. They could have been more cinematic, eschewing the authenticity in favor of something a little more audience-friendly. Instead, O’Connor knows his audience and makes the fights as realistic as possible without totally sacrificing cinematic kineticism. There are some big throws, hits, and so on in the fights and they are captured yards better than they would be from a real ringside camera. Still, I watched the movie with two diehard MMA fans and they didn’t seem to think ill of how the sport was portrayed which means I am probably onto something.

So give Warrior a shot, even if you’re disinclined to MMA or this type of movie in general. If I had to describe it in a word, I’d say: heart. The movie’s got a big one and it asks the audience to have one too. So if you can disengage your (otherwise diligent) cynicism for a couple of hours, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.