(Lionsgate) Opening 9/9/2011
Starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte. Written and Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Five out of Five Stars
It was 1976, gas prices were high, the Middle East was a mess, a crippling inflation had the nation in it’s grip and public confidence in both government leadership and the economy were at an all time low. Sitting in the darkened movie theater the sound of triumphant horns filled the room and, with giant white letters, the name ROCKY chased across the screen. Two hours later Sylvester Stallone was a movie star and Rocky Balboa was instantly and forever a part of our pop culture history. Given the obvious similarities between 1976 and 2011 is it any wonder that the best boxing movie (this time around it’s actually a mixed martial arts competition) in 35 years has finally arrived? Rocky was about an underdog rising to the biggest challenge of his life, Warrior is about two brothers, also underdogs, rising to the biggest challenges of their lives. That’s right it’s Rocky X 2! In an age when many Americans are feeling a bit like underdogs themselves, Warrior is one of those perfect films that is arriving at the perfect time.
Tommy Riordan, an ex-Marine troubled by a tragic past, played to haunting perfection by Tom Hardy, returns to his hometown of Pittsburgh and enlists his recovering alcoholic father, (Nick Nolte) to train him for an MMA tournament awarding the biggest purse in the history of the sport. As Tommy blazes a violent path towards the title prize, his brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a former MMA fighter unable to make ends meet as a public school teacher, returns to the amateur ring to provide for his family. Even though years have passed, recriminations and past betrayals keep Brendan bitterly estranged from both Tommy and his father. But when Brendan’s unlikely rise as an underdog sets him on a collision course with Tommy, the two brothers must finally confront the forces that tore them apart, all the while waging the most intense, winner-takes-all battle of their lives.
I don’t often like to gauge performances by referencing “awards season” but Nick Nolte, without a doubt, is almost guaranteed a Best Supporting Actor nomination (if not a win) for his heartbreaking performance as the brothers emotionally crippled father. Tortured by the ghosts of his past and the deep regret for his wrongs that can never be righted, Nolte, a consistently solid actor, hasn’t been this excellent in over a decade. To be fair, this would be due in large part to the fact that Nolte really hasn’t had a role that fit his talents, as perfectly as this one does, in a very long time. There simply is no other actor of his generation that could have played this character nearly as well.
Tom Hardy, a brit actor known in the states mostly for his co-starring work in last summers Inception, is a movie star by this time next week. Though Tommy Riordan is a man of few words, Hardy’s energy and very presence say more than any other character in the film. As played by Hardy, Tommy is at once terrifying and, in a matter of seconds, heartbreaking. Put simply, you haven’t seen a better performance on screen this year. By the time The Dark Night Rises, (in which Hardy plays the lead villain Bane), hits screens next summer, the expectations are going to be through the roof. Here’s hoping both he and Christopher Nolan can live up to them.
Joel Edgerton, as Tommy’s equally conflicted brother Brendan, is also perfectly poised for movie stardom. Hailing from Australia, Edgerton has been working consistently in film for over a decade and is best known to international audiences as “Uncle Owen” in the second Star Wars trilogy. Indie fans will remember him from the British comedy Kinky Boots and, one of my favorite films from last year, Animal Kingdom. Like the other male roles in Warrior, Edgerton’s job is not an easy one but he is more than up to the challenge. Brendan, as written, is definitely the more sensitive of the two brothers, (at least on the surface) and, in the hands of Edgerton, is impossible not to love and cheer for. With his starring roles in the remakes of The Thing and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby waiting in the wings, Joel Edgerton, by the end of 2011, will be a household name.
Of course, the real star of Warrior is writer/ director Gavin O’Connor. Though this is, for all intents and purposes, a simple variation on the boxing film genre, both O’Connor’s screenplay and direction smartly and deftly avoids the one ingredient that often sinks a film of this type, cheese. In the hands of another director it’s all too easy to see how this story could have quickly fallen into the trap of melodrama and schmaltz. As I watched the film I was almost holding my breath, hoping that O’Connor would make it to the end credits without taking that fatal misstep that so often sinks this kind of movie. I am very happy to report, though you will feel yourself on the edge of your seat at times, you won’t ever feel manipulated in the process.
The final match up in Warrior is a real nail-biter but, unlike any boxing or fight film you’ve seen before, your feelings about who should win the contest will be as conflicted as the characters themselves and, in that respect, Warrior is a ground breaker and, easily, the best film I’ve seen so far this year.