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'Warrior': 'Win Win' retooled for blood sport

"Well, blessed are the peacemakers, especially the fighting peacemakers!" goes a line from Melville's "Billy Budd." That could have been the epigraph to the powerhouse fight film, "Warrior," starring Joel Edgerton as a high school physics teacher -- a husband and father with a foreclosure breathing down his neck -- and Tom Hardy as a 14-year Marine vet returning to the States after hard times in Iraq. These long-estranged brothers set out to win a mixed martial arts championship in order to preserve or regain their self-respect and solvency. We see, early on, what they don't. Their integrity really depends on connecting with each other in every sense of the word.

This movie takes the essential buddy-film trope -- men expressing their emotions by beating the hell out of each other -- and raises it to an epic level. (The movie quotes Melville's "Moby-Dick," not "Billy Budd.") Hardy pulls off a primordial feat of acting: he convinces you that he's a guy who thinks with his fists. And Edgerton is nimble and continually surprising as a good, solid man who isn't as pure as he looks. (With his wife, he's not exactly the "sensitive man," he's more of a sensitive chauvinist.)

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The brawny magic of this movie comes from Nick Nolte's performance as their dad, a recovering alcoholic who's been sober for a thousand days when his younger son, the ex-Marine, shows up on his doorstep. Nolte tears you apart without ever going soft. He expresses the strength that comes with hard-won self-knowledge -- and the limits of that, too. He can't restrain his tears when his older son forbids him from getting to know his granddaughters. When his younger son -- ostensibly seeking a trainer but also gunning for psychological revenge -- makes a prolonged assault on his sobriety, Nolte is superb at conveying a virile wariness. He's a dormant volcano: he makes you hope against hope that he won't pop.

Gavin O'Connor, who also directed "Miracle" and "Pride and Glory," is a master of unsentimental male bonding. I didn't believe in the deferential choices made by the physics teacher's wife or in the wild mood-swinging behavior of the high-school principal. But everything that has to do with the three leads and the MMA cage clangs true. So does the background of economic peril and wartime chaos. At times, "Warrior" is like "Win Win" retooled for blood sport. I mean that as the highest compliment.

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