By Mike Giuliano
11:59 AM EDT, September 13, 2011
If "Warrior" predictably throws many of the same punches as the many boxing movies that came before it, there are just enough differences to make this movie seem both quirkier and more topical. Although it falls short of delivering a knockout punch, it is of some interest dramatically.
The most obvious thing setting "Warrior" somewhat apart is that it is about mixed martial arts. Based on what we see on screen, this is a combination of boxing, wrestling, karate, gouging and grunting. The numerous fight sequences are edited into such a fast jumble, however, that what they gain in visceral energy is lost in clarity. Unless you already know about mixed martial arts, you might be left feeling confused about the rules of this particular game.
Even though the movie could do a better job showcasing the sport, it does convey how fighters from diverse backgrounds are drawn to compete in matches that certainly promise more money than their dead-end day jobs. Also well-conveyed is the, er, "Fight Club" crowd that has paid its money and wouldn't mind seeing a little blood.
The movie's demographic sensitivity definitely carries through to its protagonist, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), who seems trapped in a gray zone between a rough-and-tumble, punch-filled past and his more respectable present as a high school science teacher.
This drama actually is at its best as we see how Brendan's tough-guy past serves him well in his Philadelphia classroom. His essentially good-natured students have enough city sass in them to make Brendan's strong personality a disciplinary plus.
There's a nice rapport established between this teacher and his students, and it's moving that he's even able to get them interested in science.
Money is tight for Brendan and his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), in a recessionary economy. They may lose their house to the bank, and one of their kids has large medical bills.
It's frustrating that director and co-writer Gavin O'Connor ("Miracle") presents a viable working-class setting, but does not fully develop it. There are grungy aspects to Brendan's life with Tess that are glossed over pretty quickly.
When the financially pressed Brendan resumes competing in mixed martial arts events to help make ends meet, he feels that it won't interfere with his daytime teaching job. He would like to keep this bloody moonlighting a secret, but such matches get sufficient public attention that he shouldn't be surprised when both his students and supervisors become aware that a high-kicking science teacher walks among them.
His uptight school administrators get really upset about his martial arts activity and give him an ultimatum to quit the sport, but nobody seems bothered about other family connections that are closer to strip club sleaze than to science classroom respectability.
Perhaps this is a moot point, because most of the movie does not focus on whether Brendan and his wife are too trashy for proper middle-class society. Most of the dramatic energy in "Warrior" is generated by the contentious relationship between Brendan, his estranged brother, Tommy (Tom Hardy), and their wrestling coach dad, Paddy (Nick Nolte).
A former alcoholic who seems beaten by life itself, Paddy still has some fight left in him when it comes to confronting his wayward sons. Besides, Nick Nolte's sandpaper-textured voice is so gruffly assertive that he arguably could defeat anybody with his voice alone.
This Irish-American family has such intense brother-to-brother and father-to-son squabbles that it should apply for citizenship in ancient Greek tragedy. Indeed, it almost seems like scripted overkill to toss mixed martial arts action into the equation. The pot really boils over when it turns out that Tommy, who also competes in this sport, is likely to face Brendan in a major competition.
As "Warrior" relentlessly punches away at its dysfunctional family themes, the thematically heavy scripting starts to wear on your nerves in a movie with a 139-minute running time. You see where this particular family battle is headed long before its final round. Grade: B-
"Warrior" (PG-13) is now playing at area theaters.