(Gavin O'Connor, 2011)
There's a certain strain of boxing movie that works by depicting the underdog struggles of a protagonist, repeatedly striking him down, one piece of bad luck after another, his personal life just a series of problems until boxing is all he has left, the only pure thing and the only possible source of redemption available to him. The kind of movie that works by making us sympathise with its hero so much that we are desperate for him to win that last fight, until the tension is unbearable and only a euphoric moment of victory will break it. The Rocky films are the pumped up cartoon versions of this archetype, and Gavin O'Connor's Warrior is a film fully aware of the power of all those cliches and determined to push them as far as possible.
It follows not one but two MMA fighters, estranged brothers, each with his own hard luck story and reason for fighting, both haunted by childhoods scarred by their alcoholic father, as their destinies lead them towards an inevitable showdown in a massive Atlantic City "Single Elimination" Cage-Fighting tournament.
Three things elevate Warrior. O'Connor made one of the better Sports movies of the last decade with the winning 2004 Kurt Russell vehicle Miracle, and he has an obvious understanding of the emotional dynamics of this sort of material. The backdrop to the MMA material here is a world in the grip of an economic depression, with financial ruin - the words "foreclosure" and "bankruptcy" are mentioned at a bank, while people work two jobs and a couple argue about spending - the engine driving one fighter onwards. This world feels recognisable and intimate, and it gives Warrior much of its sting. The rest comes from the cast. The central trio of alpha males are all terrific in different ways. Hardy lets that quicksilver charisma flow, and his character, wounded and full of rage and violence, is probably the best in the film, his arc the most compelling. Edgerton is the family man, fighting a losing battle with debt and unsure of his own skills in the cage, but willing to take any punishment in order to win. His sad-eyed looks are perfect for the part. Nolte is as good as ever as their father, and he has a couple of astonishing moments of emotional breakdown which almost feel too raw here.
All these elements combine to make this a film filled with emotion; gritty and suffering, its climactic sequence, when the brothers meet in the cage, is an astonishingly moving fight sequence, echoing the ferocity of a couple of earlier emotional showdowns between these characters. And while it's undoubtedly utterly contrived and horribly manipulative, Warrior works brilliantly. The MMA sequences are intense, exciting and visceral, and each of them has some emotional resonance and narrative importance. O'Connor doesnt waste a second, aware that he needs all the time he can get if he's going to make us cry.