Title: Warrior

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Written by: Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, Cliff Dorfman

Starring: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Morrison

Studio: Lionsgate

Rating: ★★★★★

Review by: Bill Jones

By the end of most fight films, there is a well-defined “good guy” and a well-defined “bad guy.” We know who to root for; we know who we want to see win. We’ve seen the good underdog work to overcome the odds, and we’ve seen dubious deeds by his opponent, cementing him as the oppressing evil that must be stopped in its tracks. In Warrior, this is not the case. By the end, we don’t know who we want to see win. We don’t know who to root for. We can’t fathom what will happen if either man loses. Warrior is, by far, the most distinctive fight film I’ve ever seen.

To even call Warrior a “fight film” doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s a drama, through and through – crafted by Miracle director Gavin O’Connor – though it truly earns the fight genre as well, with absolutely engaging mixed martial arts fights, choreographed and filmed exceptionally well. But at the center of it all we have three characters that we grow to care about – characters who are introduced by the tip of the iceberg. We see these characters first on the surface, and then as Warrior rolls along we learn more about them, about the plights that have landed them where we are today, and by the time it all comes to a head we are fully invested in them, which is as much as any film can ask.

Warrior tells the story of two brothers and their estranged, once alcoholic, abusive father. Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) is a former boxer who finds one of his sons, Tom Conlon (Tom Hardy) on his doorstep one evening upon returning home. It’s quickly evident that it’s been years since they’ve seen one another, and while Paddy has apparently cleaned up his act, his son is struggling with his own demons and comes ready to take his father to task for former indiscretions.

Meanwhile, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is living the family life with his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), and children. He is a high school physics teacher, but is facing the possibility of losing his home. So he resumes his past of MMA fighting, albeit in parking lot matches outside of local clubs rather than his former UFC “glory.”

Events are ultimately set in motion that put both Tom and Brendan on path to a championship match in a worldwide MMA tournament called Sparta, with both there for very different reasons, both with elements of their past to deal with before they find themselves head to head with each other in the championship. The film’s marketing has already let on that they will meet in the tournament, so that’s no secret, but Warrior still does a fantastic job of working to that point, and like most good media, the journey turns out to be just as entertaining as the destination. And that is mostly due to great characters and an engaging story.

In Warrior, Tom Hardy cements himself as an A-list actor. Though the mysterious background thing feels slightly contrived at times, Hardy pulls off the troubled character perfectly. That said, the ripped physique he’s worked himself up to for this film makes his hard-hitting in-ring persona that much more believable.

Conversely, Edgerton does well playing a man who has turned his life into a quieter family existence, while still possessing the technical skill and determination – after viewers learn that he is fighting to save his home, a comment from his trainer explaining in no uncertain terms that if Brendan doesn’t knock out a tough opponent he loses his home comes across with so much weight – to be equally believable in his victories.

Warrior has its cheesy moments, but ultimately, film goers who subscribe to the rule of suspending disbelief for one major thing in every movie – in the case of Warrior, it’s the ridiculousness of the idea that two brothers could find themselves in the championship of a world tournament – then the rest of the piece fall into place, and some of its other minor indiscretions become incredibly easy to overlook. Make no mistake, (despite the perfect score) Warrior has its questionable moments, but its big finish doesn’t cheat, and with the rest proving utterly captivating, most people will forgive the imperfections.

In the end, Warrior is a movie about family, and how family deals with its trials and tribulations – how it hashes out its problems, its battles, its fights. In the end, it seems only right that two brothers are battling out years of pent-up problem inside of cage, and the magic of Hollywood puts that fight on a grand stage with so much more on the line, though the struggles remain very personal. But most of all, I’ve never seen a fight film quite like Warrior, and that’s reason enough to see it. And the fact that when I left the theater I wanted nothing more than to be able to see it again is a testament to how good of a film it is.

Warrior hits theaters in North American on Friday, Sept. 9.

For more info, www.warriorfilm.com

Pads & Panels received access to an early screening of the film courtesy of the studio for review purposes.