In its opening rounds, Warrior — the story of a family feud set amid an Atlantic City mixed martial arts tournament called “Sparta” — is terrific. The advertising promises sweaty fighters in a ring, but director Gavin O’Connor (also one of three credited writers) starts with a quiet scene of father-son intrigue, shot with gritty, grainy intensity. In blue-collar Pittsburgh, a brooding hothead in a hoodie swigs from a bottle while taunting the abusive, alcoholic father he hasn’t seen in a long time. Paddy (Nick Nolte) claims to have been sober three years, but Tommy (Tom Hardy) isn’t buying it. He prowls the room; at any second it seems this panther on steroids might crack Paddy’s head open with that bottle. Hatred sets the stage.
Like The Fighter’s clan, the Conlons are a fighting family in all respects. Tommy was a wrestling champ as a teen, Paddy was a boxer and his coach, and the prodigal son’s agenda includes asking Paddy to coach him again. Paddy’s elder son, Brendan (Joel Edgerton, who played the nicest crook of the gang in Animal Kingdom) is a mild-mannered, much-loved high school physics teacher by day; at night, he fights for money in less-than-glamorous locations, such as the parking lot of a strip club. He and his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) are threatened with foreclosure, hence the moonlighting. One brother spoiling for a fight, the other fighting to save his home: what are the chances they’ll end up in a ring together? Good — too good.
Sparta, dubbed “The War at the Shore” and carrying a $5 million purse, could have fights to the death — especially once Russian UFC legend Koba (Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle) announces he’ll be a Spartan too. He’s a mammoth of a man, almost comically brutal-looking. It’s hard to fathom how Tommy or Brendan could take him on — and Brendan has plenty to live for. He’s angry with his dad, too, but more civilized about it. He shuts rather than slams the door when Paddy comes round to share the news of Tommy’s return. “Just a nice old man,” he says to his daughter when she asks about the forlorn fellow on their front lawn.
Warrior’s three principle characterizations are compelling — Nolte in particular gives a tempered performance as the shambling, sad-eyed wreck of a dad — but not enough to mask the film’s lesser elements. The story darts around too much: over to Texas, where a war widow in El Paso gives background for Tommy’s motivation; and off to Iraq for more backstory. The resulting sense of fracture and distraction is only heightened by O’Connor’s foray into a six-frame split screen for a training montage. (it is too playful a gimmick to match the film’s sobriety.) The looming contrivance of brother fighting brother can almost be overlooked. It’s too much, but hey, if O’Connor wants to go Biblical, at least he’s being bold, and what he delivers in the home stretch is, if not plausible, touching.
It’s harder to swallow the central contradiction of Tommy asking Paddy to coach him. He hates the guy so much he doesn’t want him to bring him a cup of coffee in the morning, but he’ll spend day and night training with him? There’s a line meant to explain it — about it being better to be trained by “the devil you know” than not — but the scenes between Paddy and Tommy turn into a sulk fest. Hardy wears Tommy’s emotional bruises all over his face, but he goes so far into the wounded-animal act that he becomes remote. In accent, the British Hardy channels no less than Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, who hailed from Philadelphia. But instead of wanting to see Tommy’s arms raised high in victory, the impulse is to root for him to get a brain scan, in case some of that damage is physical rather than emotional.