It’s only in part that Warrior hits all the predictable notes. Let’s face it, sports dramas all tend to be constructed the exact same way. It’s really a matter of the discordant notes, the ones that ring so falsely that they’re like sandpaper to the ears. Here is a movie that seems almost completely out of tune. It’s so unfocused and implausible that it suggests a total lack of faith on an audience’s intelligence. Without a decent screenplay to guide them along, the filmmakers had to resort to two basic tactics: (1) To emotionally manipulate us with an endless succession of threadbare melodramatic clichés; (2) to distract us with well-choreographed, well-lit, well-edited fight scenes. This is one of the rare sports films that lacks the necessary conviction for its truisms, and therefore doesn’t earn our respect. It’s about a formula when it should be about a hero.
In this case, I should say heroes. It’s about two brothers from Pittsburgh (I guess all the good fight movies have to take place in Pennsylvania) who were torn apart by their father’s alcoholism, only to reunite under the hopelessly contrived pretense of duking it out in the ring. One is Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy), an Iraq war vet with a tragic past and serious anger issues. The other is Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a former Mixed Martial Arts fighter and current public school teacher. Caught in the middle is their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), who’s now sober but always teeters on the edge of the wagon. I think a major part of the problem is that director Gavin O’Connor couldn’t make up his mind on whose story was more important; the film meanders so unevenly that I couldn’t find a way to invest in any of the characters. Just when we think we’ve found someone to root for, the story immediately shifts gears, leaving us having to mentally get back into focus.
It begins when Tommy returns to Pittsburgh completely unannounced. Paddy finds him sitting on the steps of his front porch, clearly in need of a place to stay. Paddy, in an attempt at reconciliation, takes him in. The next day, at the local gym, Tommy gets into the ring with a local tough guy and knocks him out with just one punch, an act that was captured on a cell phone camera and will soon go viral over the internet. Tommy hears about an upcoming MMA tournament in Atlantic City and decides he wants a shot at the title; he enlists his father, a former boxer, as his trainer, which means we will be given the obligatory montage sequence (here divided into quadrants on the screen, which really makes it hard to determine what I’m supposed to be looking at).
If I’m to root for this character, I have to have a reason to care about him, especially if the story is intended to be one of redemption. I wasn’t given one. Despite vague hints at an act of wartime heroism, despite a promise he made to the family of a fallen soldier – who died under circumstances I will not reveal – this character makes no attempt to be likeable. He does nothing but wallow in his own bitterness, especially towards his father and brother. When a character such as this spends all his energy alienating himself from those closest to him, the unfortunate side effect is that he will also alienate himself from the audience.
We know Paddy was an alcoholic. But why does Tommy hate Brendan? Because, when Tommy ran away with his mother – who has since died of cancer – Brendan decided to stay behind. You’d think they’d be natural allies, since Brendan is just as angry with Paddy. We now move on to his side of the story. Some years back, he gave up a career in MMA to become a high-school physics teacher, and you’ll forgive me if I find this drastic career move absolutely ridiculous. Unable to make ends meet and facing foreclosure on his house, he secretly returns to amateur rings in seedy joints in a desperate effort to provide for his family. This, of course, does not sit well with his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), who thinks that getting beaten up for a living sets a bad example for their daughters. It also doesn’t sit well with the school board, and so he’s promptly suspended. Facing financial ruin, he hears about the MMA tournament in Atlantic City and decides to compete in it.
And so it goes until both Tommy and Brendan find themselves in a ring, surrounded by a cheering throng of thousands. This extends back to Pittsburgh, where we find Brendan’s students – and even the school principal (Kevin Dunn), who had a hand in getting him suspended – watching the fight on a gigantic outdoor monitor. If you don’t already how it will turn out, you may actually be better off, for it means you’re not yet familiar with the intrinsic predictability of inspirational sports dramas. Yes, but because such films are typically more interested in character development than in formulas, they tend to redeem themselves. The great failure of Warrior is that every line delivered, every mannerism displayed, and every decision made by the characters is at the mercy of the plot. They’re not organic – they’re mechanical constructs that have no will of their own.