It may just look like beating the crap out of someone, but mixed martial arts (or MMA) is a real thing. Drawing on ancient roots, the fighting style does just what it says on the box and mashes-up various martial arts styles into its own testosterone-fuelling potpourri of man sweat. As awesome as this might sound, it’s only served the basis of a handful of films, including 2008’s Never Back Down. Despite not being as well represented as the now passé boxing on screen or off, Pride and Glory helmer Gavin O’Connor has chosen Warrior as his latest vehicle for exploring a broke family.
Former Marine Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy, Inception) unexpectedly visits his recovering alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte, Arthur). Although still upset over the way his formerly abusive father treated him and his late mother, he eventually convinces Paddy to train him for the Sparta MMA championship after a few quick wins at the local gym. Meanwhile, Paddy’s eldest son, physics teacher Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton, The Thing), struggles to pay the mortgage despite working multiple jobs. Brendan risks it all when he returns to his former life as a MMA fighter to win the $5 million Sparta honeypot, setting him on a path that will bring him head-to-head with his brother.
O’Connor tries to balance his experience with sports movies (Miracle) and he family-focused drama of Pride and Glory in Warrior, a film that takes the age-old story of ‘going the distance’. Yet in sandwiching MMA into these well-worn genres, O’Connor only manages to muddy what is an otherwise straight piece of post-Rocky filmmaking. The film never wastes any time on small things like explaining the rules of the sport, not that it really seems to have any beyond something involving tiny blocks of wood and rounds of variable lengths. That the relatively small Joel Edgerton is able to take on a goliath the size of real-life WWF champ Kurt Angle (here playing a Russian monster named Koba) is one of the many mysteries of the film.
These are minor quibbles compared to the rather emotionally flat narrative. Aside from having seen this all before, there is nothing particularly compelling or interesting about the characters we are presented with. Apart from being reminded constantly through the dialogue of other characters, Edgerton’s Conlon doesn’t seem to have the passion one would expect from someone desperate to hold onto his house and family. Hardy should be the most engaging of the three, yet beyond some brooding looks and mumbling about his childhood, this is not someone who gives off the air of caring, or someone who should be cared about. There is one beautiful moment in the film, as Hardy cradles a drunk and broken Nick Nolte, both giving peak performances and hinting at the love that both secretly nurture under their tough exteriors. Yet this is only surface-level stuff, and Hardy’s downplaying only reflects Nolte’s over-the-top shuffling beast of a father figure. There is a muddled sub-plot concerning a hero’s rescue in Iraq, and a fallen comrade, but beyond we get no sense of what Hardy’s Riordan is fighting for, and nor are we given any reason to care.
Warrior is not a great film, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have greatness in it. There are moments where the characters just click, but they are given little chance to develop beyond archetypes, even in the bloated running time. There is an inevitability to O’Connor’s film that even the best performances can’t shake, and while the boxing genre may have done this all before, it has certainly done it better.
Warrior is released in Australia on 27 October 2011 from Roadshow Films.