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First of all, for those who know that it’s coming, here’s a video. Are we all aware that this fighting movie has nothing to do with that particular Warrior? Is that obligatory reference out of the way? Great. Let’s begin.

Tonight’s film is a movie about a pair of brothers, both of whom are experienced fighters. One of them is reluctant to get back in the ring, and the other has a serious attitude problem. There’s a lot of family conflict that reaches its climax with a huge championship bout.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Looking at the trailer to Warrior, I was seriously wondering if the filmmakers had thought we were born yesterday. Did they really think we wouldn’t have remembered a movie that got seven Oscar nominations (and both supporting actors’ trophies!) just last year? Hell, they barely even bothered to change the title! Add in the involvement of Gavin O’Connor, who previously directed another cliche-ridden sports film (Miracle), and this had all the stench of a shallow awards-baiting cash-grab.

But then something happened, and it’s something that’s happened quite a few times this year: My low expectations were subverted by an overwhelmingly positive critical response. Then again, critics also loved The Fighter, and Lord knows I wasn’t a fan of that film. Still, I figured that I may as well give this movie a chance to prove me wrong.

And sometimes, it feels so great to be wrong.

Let’s take it from the top. The very first character we meet is Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a former Marine, a crappy father, and an even worse husband. He was also an alcoholic, though he’s close to 1,000 days sober when we meet him. Last but not least, he had two sons and taught them how to fight.

The younger son is Tommy (Tom Hardy), who ran away from home with his mother until her death. At that point, Tommy went to join the Marines and came back home under unusual circumstances. We don’t learn exactly what happened until much later in the film, but it’s clear from the outset that this guy’s carrying at least five metric fucktons of emotional baggage. So he goes to a local gym and takes his baggage out on whoever steps into the ring with him.

The elder son is Brendan (Joel Edgerton). After a competitor sent him to the hospital, Brendan retired from professional fighting to settle down with his wife and two adorable daughters. Unfortunately, the sinking economy — coupled with a recent heart transplant for one of his girls — sent the family into financial free-fall. Brendan and his wife are taking on three jobs to make ends meet: She’s a waitress, and he’s a high school physics teacher who moonlights as a bouncer. Except the last part is just a lie that Brendan tells to his wife. In truth, Brendan makes a bit of extra money in amateur fights. All of that goes downhill when word about Brendan’s night job spreads to the principal’s office, and Brendan gets suspended without pay (where’s the teachers’ union when you need it?).

This is where a multi-millionaire comes in. A former hedge fund manager has organized a tournament for the finest MMA middleweights in the world, dubbed “Sparta,” with $5 million for the winner (No, I’m not going to say it). Brendan goes for the tournament because his family needs the money, and Tommy goes after it for reasons I won’t go into here.

I realize how absolutely cliched this all sounds, but there are two very important reasons why movie absolutely makes it work. First among them is the fight scenes.

Put simply, this movie doesn’t have fight scenes. It has works of art. Though the handheld camera can get a little disorienting at times, the visuals generally do an amazing job of keeping the fights energetic and deeply thrilling to watch. The choreography is fantastic throughout, and every blow feels palpable. I’ll grant that there was far less blood than might be considered realistic, but I’ll chalk that up to the MPAA and the PG-13 rating they stuck this movie with.

Additionally, any points I take away for the loss of fake blood, I have to give right back for the work that Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy do in the cage. As the scrappy underdog, Edgerton is given an extremely physical role to play, and he does a painfully glorious job of selling every blow and every injury. And as for Tom Hardy… I was expecting a ton from him after Bronson, but I was not expecting this.

Tommy is so fast, so powerful, and so filled with blind rage that he beats even the toughest fighters to bloody pulps in mere seconds. Tom Hardy’s Bronson might have been a badass, but Tommy is nothing less than a demon. I think a friend of mine online put it best: “If Tom Hardy [as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises] fights Batman like he does in Warrior, then Batman is fucked.”

All of this brings me to the second reason why this movie works: The characters and the actors playing them. Take Paddy, for example. Nolte has the screen presence of someone who’s clearly done a lot of bad things in his past, but he plays this role with the emotional sincerity of someone who’s desperately trying to repent for his past sins. Nolte sold me on this character from the very first scene, in which Tommy is heaping all manner of verbal abuse onto him. Without even saying a word, Nolte made it clear that Paddy isn’t just taking this crap without a fight because he’s strong enough to absorb the blows. He’s taking the abuse because he knows he deserves it. Remember when Melissa Leo got an Oscar for her performance in The Fighter? Well, Nolte puts her to shame in this movie. Phenomenal work.

Then there’s Tom Hardy. This may not come as much of a surprise, but I loved his performance as a socially withdrawn man who has clear mental and emotional problems. Yes, Tommy has the excuse of being an Iraq vet (or maybe it was Afghanistan, I don’t remember), but whatever problems he has clearly go much deeper than that. It isn’t even his daddy issues, either. This is a guy with a colossal chip on his shoulder and a deep-seated urge to sever all social ties. Even when he goes to Paddy for training, it’s solely because Tommy needs a trainer and not because he needs or wants to reconcile with his dad.

As for our hero, Joel Edgerton does a top-notch job as the reluctant fighter. Here’s a rare actor who could believably look like an ordinary joe and a world-class fighter, both at the same time. Of all the fighters in Sparta, Brendan is the only one we see who has people supporting him not for his fighting prowess, but because they genuinely love him and want to see him do well (No, the movie didn’t go for that cheap old internet meme, and I won’t either). It’s easy to see why, since Edgerton is shown to be a good teacher, a loving father, and a nice guy all-around. Yet he still has to reconcile with Paddy and Tommy, and his heated interplay with Nolte and Hardy is simply electrifying.

But getting back to Brendan’s supporters, a mention is due to Jennifer Morrison (whom you may remember as Kirk’s mom in the Star Trek reboot) in the role of Brendan’s wife. Here’s a character who has some understandable fears about raising a family in which the dad gets beaten up for a living. But at the same time, Tess also understands that this is the only way they’re getting any money. She hates the situation with every fiber of her being, but she loves her husband enough to support him with all her heart when the time comes.

These lead characters sound cliche on paper, but they’re given such sterling performances and such wonderfully written dialogue that they all have a surprising amount of depth. Alas, I’ll admit that the secondary cast wasn’t so lucky. Frank Grillo plays Brendan’s trainer — also named Frank — who doesn’t seem like a character so much as a plot device. He’s a way for Brendan to get back in shape and into the tournament, and not much else. There’s also the matter of Kevin Dunn, here playing the principal of Brendan’s school. Dunn is basically delivering the same officious and unfunny schtick that was so tedious in Unstoppable and the Transformers movies, but at least he isn’t around long enough to wear out his welcome this time.

Then we’ve got “Mad Dog” Grimes and Koba, who are established as the rival fighters of Tommy and Brendan, respectively. The former is played by Erik Apple, a real-life professional MMA fighter signed with Strikeforce. The latter is played by Kurt Angle, an Olympic gold medalist and five-time TNA World Heavyweight Champion. With all respect to these gentlemen and their real-life accomplishments, it’s patently obvious that they weren’t hired to be in this movie for their acting abilities. These characters are little more than cardboard cut-outs, and they barely get any lines. Even Drago had more personality than both of them put together. Still, it must be said that Kurt Angle gets a great fight scene opposite Edgerton. As for Erik Apple… well, he fights opposite Tommy. ‘Nuff said.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the exquisite music. The score in this film is designed in such a way that it beautifully enhances the fight scenes, and all the emotional dialogue exchanges greatly benefit from the music — or lack thereof — as well. The score also utilizes Beethoven in a few novel ways that tie neatly into the story.

Warrior has plenty of cliched moments, but the actors, the screenplay, and the score are all more than enough to breathe life into these characters and grant them a huge amount of emotional depth. The fight scenes alone are worth the cost of admission, and they greatly benefited from the participation of so many professional fighters. This is definitely a film worth checking out, and I’d say that it’s worth a few nods from the Academy when the time comes.

(…Oh, all right. I hope you’re happy.)

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