Warrior

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With mixed martial arts gaining popularity as a more violent alternative to the disappointingly genteel game of boxing, it was only a matter of time before the sport got the big-screen treatment. What’s surprising, though, is that the first big film to focus on MMA as an organized sport isn’t a cynical smash-and-grab affair but a rousing drama. Who’d have thought MMA would get its “Rocky” right out of the gate?

The film is called “Warrior” — and if that seems like a rather ambitious and all-encompassing title, consider that its director and co-writer, Gavin O’Connor, also made “Miracle,” about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. The present film, also credited to writers Cliff Dorfman (“Entourage”) and Anthony Tambakis, hints at several things that “warrior” can mean: military warfare, interpersonal disputes, battles with oneself, and so forth. Mostly, though, it focuses on the kind of warriors who get into hexagonal cages and beat each other up.

“Warrior” isn’t a true story, as its outrageous plot contrivances make clear, but it does ring true in the way it handles the proud, rough men at its center. Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), a family man and high school teacher, is estranged from his brother, Tommy (Tom Hardy), a haunted brooder who left years ago to get away from their abusive, alcoholic father. The old man, Paddy (Nick Nolte), is sober and remorseful now, but neither brother wants anything to do with him or each other.

Brendan and Tommy, both wrestlers (and amateur brawlers) in their youth, now begin training as MMA fighters. Brendan reunites with his old trainer, a gym buddy named Frank (Frank Grillo), while Tommy reluctantly returns to his own former mentor: his dad. No relationship, though. Just business.

Each fighter needs the money that a major victory would bring, but there are more complex motivations as well, and it’s in examining these that the film really succeeds. Hardy and Edgerton give raw, heartfelt performances as their characters grapple with guilt, responsibility, familial love, and masculinity. They use brute force to punish themselves, each other, and the world, in the process addressing issues that other men might have taken to a therapist.

O’Connor stages some virtuoso MMA fights, delivering the red meat audiences crave and cementing his “Miracle”-earned reputation as a notable director of sports movies. A few people who I’m told will be recognizable to MMA fans turn up to lend authenticity. The movie is hurt by its simplistic storyline, though. It asks us to believe an awful lot of malarkey — two rookies getting into a high-profile tournament so easily, for example — without giving us much reason to.

Yet those corny elements are outweighed by the genuinely affecting nature of Brendan and Tommy’s personal struggles. O’Connor doesn’t just provide rah-rah fighting — he makes it mean something. It’s a pretty sneaky trick, giving us a testosterone-driven fight movie that also makes us cry.

B (2 hrs., 19 min.; PG-13, moderate profanity, mixed martial arts violence.)

I wrote more about "Warrior" in the Monday Morning Review feature at Movies.com, aimed at people who have seen the movie.