Warrior (2011)

Fun fact: Nick Nolte, of all people, was nominated for an Academy Award for this film.

Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, starring Nolte, Tom Hardy, and Joel Edgerton, is an emotional tale detailing the effects of an alcoholic father on a pair of brothers and how they ultimately overcome the damage done. One aspect of the film I particularly enjoy is the use of mixed martial arts simply as a frame for the telling of the story, rather than as the true focus of the film. Warrior is about family and pain and forgiveness and regret and utilizes the intensity of physical battle to make these themes come across all the more powerfully.  How could one feel Tommy’s (Hardy) mix of confusion and fear more effectively than by watching him punch another man in the face?

Tommy is the most interesting character in Warrior because he, quite clearly, is the most emotionally sensitive; his resentment of his father is immense, the pain he has felt at the death of his mother and his brother-in-arms is excruciating, his confusion about what he should do and where he should go, and the fear caused by this confusion all translate into his ferociousness in the cage. O’Connor’s decision, as screenwrter, to turn in a quiet character in Tommy is brilliant — Tommy desperately wants to be the “tough guy,” despite being deeply affected by the events of his life. He holds his emotions inside, they bubble, and are frighteningly released in the ring. Had Hardy spent the film blabbering, that interesting character would have collapsed completely. Tommy really would be perceived as the “tough guy,” had he not been so introspective and obviously distressed.

When Tommy slams, punches, and beats the living shit out of his opponents, these emotions come out. A result of the brilliant design of Tommy as a character and Hardy’s exceptional acting chops, we fully believe in these emotions and can almost feel them leave our bodies as they leave Tommy’s when he takes down his opponents.  Tommy’s character is as expertly crafted as it is executed, making him the most interesting character and bringing a next-level emotional intensity to the film.

While the UFC component of the film is used a frame for the themes of the film, the enjoyability of this action should not be dismissed.  The second hour of Warrior is immensely enjoyable just in the sense that the fight scenes are totally badass.  For every time Hardy body slams a would-be world champion, we feel as jacked-up as we feel cathartic.  The fact that this film contains multiple layers of greatness is a testament to its quality.  It is like half action-packed fight movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, half well acted, scripted, and directed tale of love’s ability to defeat hate.  As a result, the film is versatile, allowing it to be enjoyed thoroughly by a number of different moviegoers.

And yet Nick Nolte was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in this film, and despite the relapse scene in which he recites Moby Dick, he was the weakest part of the film.  His performance wasn’t  poor, by any means, but he was a bit of a bumbling imbecile to the point where I began to get slightly annoyed by his presence.  His whimpering and whining could have been replaced with a respectful acknowledgement of the consequences of his actions; he could have been a stronger character that I would have respected, myself, and would have enjoyed seeing on-screen.  Now, this could be as much of knock on O’Connor as it is on Nolte, depending on whose idea it was to portray the father character in this manner.  Regardless, I was not distracted by Nolte enough to claim that he actually took away from my overall enjoyment of the film, and there were, in fact, moments where he did shine (once again, the relapse Moby Dick scene).

The most intriguing aspect of the film is the tale of two brothers.  It packs the most powerful emotional punch (pun intended) and takes Warrior to the next level as a film.  What would otherwise be an enjoyable, but quite simple UFC movie, Warrior creates such depth for its characters by providing them with these deep backstories.  Not only do these backstories enable the emotional powerfulness of the ultimate battle between the two brothers, but it makes some of the film’s best scenes possible. Tommy and Brendan meeting on the beach is fantastic.  The emotional build-up in the film is on a constant upward trajectory, climaxing in a final showdown that just might bring you to tears.  Kudos to two of my favorite actors, Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, and to you too, Nick Nolte… I guess.