On paper, as well as on celluloid, Warrior carries with it the nagging feeling of built-in similarities to another recent film living or past, and a high-profile one at that. We get a natural déjà vu feeling, considering the central themes of tough, hardscrabble brothers who would be big prizefighters (in this case, in the rough-and-tumble sport of “mixed martial arts”), a dysfunctional family tree, and a pained, meandering, and ultimately triumphant pathway into the big ring (or in this case, the MMA cage). Can you say The Fighter?
On the plus side, another attribute Warrior shares with The Fighter, as well as The Wrestler — besides blunt noun-based titles — is candidacy in a surprising and new subgenre of artful fight flicks. And as in those other films, Warrior skimps on neither the visceral primal power and choreography of its fight scenes nor the poignancy of its characters’ slowly emerging backstories. One brother, Tommy (Tom Hardy), is all muscle and rage, having returned from Iraq and channeled his fury into the cage, while the other brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), is a leaner, more rational sort, a physics teacher fighting to keep house and home together. In the middle is a formerly alcoholic and abusive father (Nick Nolte) in Pittsburgh, and their story is told in an engaging way, however familiar the formula.
There are odd, anomalous distractions in the film, including a cheesy multiscreen mosaic montage effect, in sharp contrast to the rough-ish naturalism and Hipstamatic-like film stock patina of Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography. Mark Isham’s score, mostly effective, takes the dubious and irritating task of folding in a minor-mode snippet of “Ode to Joy,” a nod to a coach’s use of Beethoven in pumping up the morale of his boxers. In brighter musical news, the band The National supplies some beauteous, brooding songs at telling moments.
But things work with an uncommon strength in other areas of the film, starting from the acting up. Nolte puts in one of those strong-and-quiet, nuanced performances — mostly sober, except when he’s decidedly not — which reminds us of the inverse proportion of Nolte’s core talent and the opportunities he’s had to make use of it. But the real charm in the casting is the appearance of two relatively unfamiliar leads with sturdy acting power, who take to the big screen in an age when the star system keeps forcing us to accept the same old faces in endless arrays of roles. Edgerton may be familiar from another twisted family saga, Animal Kingdom, but he brings a new intensity to this tale of fate-driven caged bros, on more than one level.
Warrior is another powerful encounter in the ring of the fight-flick genre, only recently upgraded in artistic potential.