With Miracle and now Warrior, Gavin O'Conner can lay claim to being the finest sports-drama director working today. That field is, admittedly, a shallow one, yet faint praise isn't intended, as O'Conner continues to exhibit a deft knack for melding interpersonal drama with athletic competition in ways that, despite his tales' clichés, earn their melodramatic manipulations through genuine empathy for characters' plights. Whereas his prior effort about the historic real-life 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team had built-in rooting-interest, Warrior works from an original dramatic template—original, of course, except for its indebtedness to Rocky, with which it shares not only a Philadelphia setting for its rise-to-fisticuffs-glory trajectory, but a set of archetypes modeled after the Italian Stallion, Adrian, Mick, and Drago. Still, if those connections are sometimes blatant, they're also embraced as a means of acknowledging the enduring impact of its basic nobodies-make-good template, in which two long-estranged brothers, high school wrestling star and Iraq war vet Tommy (Thomas Hardy) and physics teacher and former UFC punching bag Brendan (Joel Edgerton), seek self-worth and salvation through confronting their traumatic past with recovering alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte), all while vying for a $5 million purse at an Atlantic City mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament.
If Brendan is a loyal family man in a Balboa mold, battering ram Tommy is On the Waterfront's Terry Malloy, a glowering, sarcastic everyman struggling to both subsist and survive his own inner demons. Tommy and Brendan's day-to-day lives and self-esteem are wracked by contemporary concerns regarding housing foreclosures and battlefield trauma, which for Tommy is complicated by his having heroically saved comrades by literally ripping a tank's door off its hinges, but the consistently well-modulated script doesn't overstate its modern-condition concerns so much as merely couch its uplifting saga in a relatable here-and-now. As with a recurring, understated thematic subplot involving Paddy and Moby Dick, or when Paddy loftily proclaims, "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't," and Tommy deflates the sentiment with a "Yeah?," Warrior regularly finds a way to meld its more epic impulses in a convincing working-class reality. That's also true of the story's guiding moral and emotional conflicts and dilemmas, which—be it Brendan's refusal to lose his house because "we're not going backwards," or Tommy and Brendan's equally valid anger over Brendan's teenage decision to stay with his abusive dad while Tommy and their dying mother fled to the West Coast—recognize life as a thicket of complications, misunderstandings and mistakes that rarely can be assessed and resolved in cozy black-and-white terms.
The film's first half carefully considers its protagonists, with its generous spirit extending to that of Paddy, whose soul-crushing mixture of guilt is beautifully conveyed by Nolte in a performance of tremulous reserve and grace. Hardy and Edgerton are equally compelling as siblings at war with their father, each other, and themselves, providing enough polar-opposite energy to create tremendous friction during the finale, an inevitable showdown between the two that—in light of the preceding, even-handed character-centric material—is most powerful for its ability to elicit desire for dual victory. Shooting with a patina of rusty grays, blues, and blacks, O'Conner handles these segments with aplomb, and once the tale turns to the MMA cage, his action sequences deliver one visceral wallop after another. To its occasional detriment, the plot never upends expectations, ultimately hewing to a predictable happily-ever-after path. Yet on the heels of its compassionate portrait of wounded masculinity in search of stability and forgiveness, his bruising clashes—highlighted by an amazing close-up of Brendan as he attempts to fell an undefeated opponent with a submission hold, his life's fears and desires manifest in his fraught face and vein-bulging neck—prove so gripping that, even at 139 minutes, Warrior leaves you wanting even more.