What is it?

New film by Gavin O’Connor starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as mixed martial artists, Tommy and Brendan Conlon. The two are entrants into a world MMA championship, Sparta, for which the winner-takes-all purse is $5m. More importantly, the two are also brothers, estranged from one another and from their father, Paddy, played with great feeling by gravel-voiced Nick Nolte.

The relationship between the three is complex and hinges on Paddy’s success as a wrestling coach but failings as a father. We discover early in the film that Paddy coached teenaged Tommy to multiple national wrestling championships, but did not extend the same mentoring role to older brother, yet underdog, Brendan. He is also a recovering alcoholic who neglected his sons and their mother terribly. This neglect has taken heavy tolls on them both, who have each excluded him from their lives. Three years sober, Paddy is now trying clumsily to reach out to his sons and rekindle the cold embers of their relationships.

For their part, the two brothers have not spoken to one another for many years. Tommy resents Brendan almost as much as he resents their father. He is a returned marine and war hero, but he is filled by an inexhaustible supply of anger at the world, whose source remains clouded until the final stages of the film. Brendan has no love for their father either, but this is the rational decision of a husband and family man who has been burnt by a bad bet one too many times.

Brendan’s feelings for Tommy are less readily resolved: love, forgiveness and guilt are all present in varying quantities. It is love however, that most clearly defines his character: he is as filled by it as Tommy is by anger, dedicating himself to everyone in his life – his wife (a small part played with verve by Jennifer Morrison) and daughters, his high-school physics students, his trainer.

What did we think?

Warrior appears at first glance to be a film about the popular brutality of mixed martial arts, but instead reveals itself as one of great depth and emotion. It explores the difficult lives of a fractured family with painful histories both individual and shared. These histories mix with present-day motivations to create tangibly real characterisations that utilise the fighting as a backdrop rather than the central theme.

The whole cast put in exceptional performances, with Hardy, Edgerton and Nolte each contributing great subtlety to their characters. We cannot help but feel deep compassion for them all, even for Tommy, whose spiteful anger at first renders him if not unlikelable then at least inscrutable.

These performances are expressed with care and devotion by O’Connor’s direction, who drip feeds us their stories so that we are forced to rely on their interactions and nuanced expressions to understand them. The film places rewarding emphasis on the evolving relationships of its characters instead of the mindless escalation of fight scenes that typically structure lesser efforts. Yes, the fighting is a big part of this movie, but with considerable background and buildup, we are furnished with more than sufficient context to make the fights mean more than just dollars in the bank. There is no bad guy here, no nemesis to vanquish or damsel to liberate.

Indeed, when Tommy and Brendan meet each other in the grand final match of the championship, we were momentarily worried a potentially great film would be let down by a soft ending. Thankfully, this is not to be, with O’Connor delivering surely the most emotionally powerful fight scene ever to make it onto celluloid. Set to an unexpectedly sophisticated and wonderfully stirring soundtrack, the final fight delivers a much-needed release to many of the tensions that build throughout the film. So fraught with overlapping waves of hopes and fears are some of its moments we almost cried. That’s right, cried during a fight scene.

This is easily the best fighting film we have ever seen: 4.5 stars.

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