Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton work through some family of origin issuesPhoto: Lionsgate

Desert IslandWhy I Saw It: Press screening, and Tom Hardy. Period. The man’s an under-recognized megatalent. (And 3Roller™.)
What I Thought: So good I screened it twice, and have at least three more viewings in me (this year). Thought about it very nearly every day for over a month.

Warrior. Dir. Gavin O’Connor. Perf. Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Kevin Dunn. Lionsgate, 2011.

The younger son of an alcoholic father returns home to seek training for an upcoming winner-take-all Mixed Martial Arts tournament, even as his equally estranged brother prepares as well, unbeknownst to both.

Take a look at the number of themes at the top of this article. Warrior is loaded.

It’s the story of an MMA tournament in about the same way that Gladiator is about the bloodlust of the Roman Empire: while a compelling circumstance in its own right to be sure (!!), it actually serves as the emotional crucible in which rage over injustice carries out its vengeance in spectacular supremacy, and devotion’s depth reveals itself in meeting the most fearsome of possibilities head on.

While the tale of two combatants in an MMA tournament and what motivates their decisions and drive to compete, even more it is the story of a family ~ one so fractured by alcoholism as to be, by all indications, irrevocably dismantled. Sure, there’s sobriety and moving on, but sometimes the wreckage is permanent. Scrambled eggs, rung bells, and all that. But still, there’s always hope, right? Not the wishful variety, but true Hope, the endurance of belief that a different future remains possible… or isn’t there? Hmmm.

At first I had some concern that the past was revealed only in the broadest strokes, thereby failing to communicate how understandable the brothers’ intractability truly is, and causing them to appear overreactive and unforgiving. However, there’s a saying I’ve heard with two other arenas of human experience: that there’s no need to discuss detail ~ the ones who’ve experienced it don’t need telling, and the ones who haven’t wouldn’t fully grasp it anyway. Watch Tommy’s expression during a bout, watch Brendan walk back into the house, and the content, if not the form, becomes clear. Form, in fact, becomes irrelevant.

Is there a point at which it’s simply too late? What then to do with the rage of the loss? Or at what price prevent continuation of the cycle? How diligently ought, can, one pursue reconciliation? How far does one risk for one’s cause? When must one give up on another in order to, perhaps quite literally, save one’s own life?

Warrior explores all amid a battle of such ferocity as to make Rocky look like a tolerable way to spend an evening (if one needs to work out one’s family of origin issues, the MMA cage seems like a pretty good place to do it…). In so doing we, their communities, their workplaces, and their countrymen find ourselves completely swept up and clinging desperately to our desired outcome (a much more complicated desire than one might imagine).

Writer/Director Gavin O’Connor brings to Warrior the same grit and complexity of family relationship and loyalty that he did to Pride and Glory (underrated, and itself a very fine film indeed ~ I think The Departed just sucked all the oxygen out of the space at that time). Where the the latter was cerebral, however, Warrior is utterly visceral. Mercilessly so, as are the challenges faced by our protagonists.

In addition to the compelling conversational scenes, O’Connor’s exceptional direction of the action starts us at a short distance away from the competition as we see what each brother is made of; then, as the tournament itself begins he draws us up to the cage, then into the cage, then next to the referee, and ultimately into the fighters’ personal perspectives. Brilliant, truly.

Edgerton and Morrison enjoy excellent chemistry as Brendan and Tess Conlon, loving spouses and parents struggling to make ends meet, the picture of what can be accomplished despite severe earlier circumstances. Completely believable, we’re pained by the limited options left by the corner into which they’ve been painted, and Edgerton nails the fine line between being a grounded family man and being one of “those animals” in residence in the cage.

Nolte’s at his best in years (perhaps ever), as one-time, sometime, would-be patriarch Paddy Conlon, now in recovery and full recognition of the damage he’s wrought and genuinely seeking reconciliation, perhaps even redemption. Every wince stings like a swipe from Zorro’s blade, and one feels deeply for him despite resonating with his sons’ resolve to keep him at safe distance. His woundedness and intention never emotive, Nolte breaks our hearts with Paddy’s broken one.

Hardy contributes the most remarkable performance as Tommy Conlon, not only of this film, but likely of just about any other leading performance this year. Certainly top ten. The level of ferocity he presents in the cage actually startles, particularly in contrast to the jovial and warm-hearted individual he actually is.

[Aside: This contrast shows itself also in Bronson, where he brilliantly portrayed perhaps the most unfettered, barbaric brawler alive today, and recounted with laughter his reluctance to shake the man’s enthusiastically extended hand, saying, “I didn’t want to be disrespectful, but … I didn’t want to!” with the wondrous expression and smile befitting a youngster. (Btw, he shook Bronson’s hand, and received it back without issue.)]

As decimating as he is in competition, however, Tommy is no consumed menace to society. During a scene where he lays down the non-negotiable law to his father over breakfast, Hardy changes his tone, completely naturally, to pure gentleness to speak momentarily with the waitress, and then returns to the cage fighter demeanor reserved for the object of his ire. In the final sequence, when we see Tommy in full force of battle (physically and emotionally), we remember this moment and who Hardy himself is, and the performance stands in relief as an astonishing home run.

Together, Nolte and Hardy create rare and precious work ~ every scene captivates, with one confrontation in a casino being so raw that I could actually feel an ache up my spine. Eminently deserving, let’s hope both find themselves extremely busy come springtime.

Warrior nails every possible level, from emotion to script to direction to Mark Isham’s score to the editing team’s assembly and the magnificent fight choreography. If you’re not into combat, be not dissuaded, you can easily close your eyes, and there’s plenty of warning as to when doing so might be advisable. It’s got heart, realism, authenticity, exuberance, suspense, and is quite simply, not to be missed.

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