Made-in-Pittsburgh 'Warrior' layers brutality with tale of family heartbreak and redemption
September 9, 2011 8:00 AM
Photo credit: Chuck Zlotnick
Nick Nolte stars as 'Paddy' in 'Warrior.'
Photo credit: Chuck Zlotnick
Tom Hardy, left, and Joel Edgerton star as brothers Tommy and Brendan in "Warrior."
By Barbara Vancheri Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tommy doesn't pull his punches in the boxing ring, mixed martial arts cage or conversations with his father.
Resentment, anger and disgust have hardened like calluses on Tommy (Tom Hardy), back in his hometown of Pittsburgh for the first time in years. "I think I liked you better when you were a drunk," he tells his dad, retired steelworker Paddy (Nick Nolte), who is on the brink of 1,000 days sober.
Tommy and his long-suffering mother fled Pittsburgh and the one-time drunken, abusive Paddy. Now he's returned to the home where he and brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) grew up. Brendan is a physics teacher in Philadelphia, married to his high school sweetheart and the doting father of two daughters.
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material.
For reasons as contrived as they are compelling, Tommy starts to train for a $5 million winner-take-all MMA tournament called Sparta and so does Brendan. Neither knows the other is trying to make it to Atlantic City and win the biggest purse the sport has ever seen.
"Warrior" tracks the men's physical and emotional journeys -- and reasons for being willing to climb into a cage and be beaten, pounded, slammed and nearly choked to death -- in a story with biblical overtones. One brother must die, symbolically rather than physically, so he can be reborn.
But, at its heart, it's a rousing story with three men fighting their way back to family, brotherhood and promises made and kept. It manages to figure out a way to make a winner a winner and a loser a winner, and to tap into the country's dismal economic climate.
Brendan, facing the loss of his house, asks his banker, "My wife and I have three jobs between us. That doesn't cut it, so what do you suggest?" It's Brendan who comes up with a possible, punishing solution to his money woes as the movie marches toward Sparta as if it were a compressed Olympics or Super Bowl.
You don't need to know the rules of mixed martial arts to appreciate "Warrior," which is a good thing because director and co-writer Gavin O'Connor provides almost none.
You may divine that when a fighter taps on the mat or his opponent or verbally submits, he's surrendering. In a movie that runs 139 minutes, there should have been time to squeeze in a sentence or two outlining the bare-bones rules.
"Warrior" originally was targeted for a fall 2010 release and was postponed, in part, to avoid competing against "The Fighter," which earned Oscars for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. The performers Mr. O'Connor cast and brought to Pittsburgh in 2009 are no longer the largely unrecognizable actors he sought.
Mr. Hardy is the villain, Bane, who sweltered in a bizarre face mask and fighting gear through brawl after brawl with Batman during filming of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Pittsburgh. Mr. Edgerton, meanwhile, will be seen in "The Thing," as Jennifer Garner's husband in "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" and in the plum role of Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby."
Although Mr. O'Connor gained attention when he directed the 1999 indie feature "Tumbleweeds" starring Janet McTeer as a footloose mother, he specializes in stories about male-dominated societies such as the NYPD in "Pride and Glory" and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team in "Miracle."
Here, he shamelessly stacks the deck like a crooked dealer at a poker table, but he builds to a scene that allows the men to use their fists and every other physical weapon at their disposal, their shared sense of history and their once-broken brotherly bond to move each other and the audience.
Mr. Hardy looks like a man almost hunched over from the weight he's carried for the past 14 years. Tommy's old-school training and surroundings -- back in his old attic bedroom with The Terrible Towel tacked to the wall -- are contrasted with Brendan's warm family life and his gravitation to a modern, glass-walled gym.
Although Pittsburgh plays itself and Philadelphia (look where North Hills High School has been relocated), audiences will see the working-class, gritty city. Mills still spew smoke, and Paddy apparently lives in Marshall-Shadeland and eats breakfast at Don's Diner in Brightwood. The Gage Building in the Strip District was transformed into a gym, the Petersen Events Center doubles as an Atlantic City venue and Robinson's Twin Hi-Way Drive-In makes the final cut. Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle turns up, too, but as a feared Russian wrestling champ, Koba.
"The Fighter," one of the best movies of 2010, was based on a true story and had far richer roles for women, but "Warrior" takes two sons and one father and layers on themes about families divided, loyalty, self-preservation, forgiveness, redemption and what it means to be a patriot and a brother.
And then it throws in a little "Moby-Dick" and classical music for good mind-expanding measure.