There’s nothing that makes a grown man cry like a good sports movie. It might be the love of the competition or a nostalgic recapturing of the dreams most young boys have of being a giant sports star with ultimate glory in sight. Boxing films, in particular, have been some of the most successfully tear-jerking films of the kind, from Rocky to The Fighter — there isn’t quite anything like the thrill of one man with his back to the wall, against all competitive, cultural and social odds. Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior is absolutely a sports film, but it’s definitely trying to break new ground; focusing on an unconventional sport isn’t the only way in which it does this.
First, to be successful Warrior had to appeal to hardcore, casual and non-fans of mixed-martial arts (MMA). It does this by keeping the fights intense and exciting. MMA is typically an exciting sport, but not every fight will turn out that way. The film goes to extremes — coming off more like professional wrestling at times — utilizing moves like crazy suplexes and powerbomb slams that are very rarely seen in a real MMA battle. That’s not to say that dedicated fans of the sport (of which I consider myself one) will just roll their eyes at the presentation, because the form is pretty true — without getting too technical, you see a good display of kimuras, armbars and kneebars, too.
But the presentation of the sport isn’t where they have struck gold; it’s with the emotion they are able to give within the fights. Obviously, when two highly-skilled athletes get inside of a cage there is always going to be a lot of passion and pride, but the way the film is able to express itself and drive emotional plot lines forward during fights is something I have never seen before. Warrior somehow manages to easily stride past last year’s darling The Fighter when it comes to the relevance of the fights. By the time we’ve reached the championship round, a number of swirling conflicts come to a head, and what better way to wrap up emotional wars than with a physical one?
We know from the trailer of the film that the two brothers fight for the championship — some may call that a spoiler, but the film still has the added element that we don’t know who wins. And unlike many sports movies where we know that the good guy(s) will triumph over the villainous opponent, we have a rooting interest in both competitors. Even though the movie uses standard tropes to seemingly “favor” one man over the other, director Gavin O’Connor sets different perspectives that allow the viewer to find favor in either brother. Of course, with all the emotional buildup between these two fighters throughout, it doesn’t really matter who actually wins the fight, and that point is driven perfectly by the end of the film.
It can’t go unsaid that this film wouldn’t work without the three lead actors, Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte. The characters certainly fill familiar roles, but there is more truth to these characters than the typical film. Although these are showy roles, none of them give showy performances, especially Nolte, who seems to be going into a very quiet, painful, personal place to allow his former drunk, abusive father to come to life. Hardy is particularly good inside of the cage during the fight scenes, showing so much with just his body language. Edgerton may be the least known of the three actors, but he may give the best performance as the exceptionally likeable physics teacher who is looking for one last chance at success. Even though he is the cleanest morally, the script and the performance do well to not make him perfect.
I don’t know if Warrior is the “best” film I’ve seen this year, but I haven’t responded to a film like this in a long, long time. It wasn’t just me — this was a crowd-pleaser through-and-through (I think there were at least four moments when my theater literally erupted in cheers). Whether or not you’re a fan of mixed martial arts, you’ll find yourself wrapped up in the defined characters and their relatable problems. You may cry for them, but you’ll also end up cheering.