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September 11, 2011

Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior is a gripping story of redemption for a badly broken soul. But it’s also a mediocre story about a man overcoming all obstacles to provide for his family. And in trying to do both at once it turns into a flabby, shapeless mass in desperate need of a training session in the editing room.

The story centers on the Conlons, a working-class Pittsburgh family not just broken, but shattered by the alcoholism of the patriarch, Paddy (Nick Nolte). His wife left the abusive environment with son Tommy (Tom Hardy), who was left to care for her as she died. The other son, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), stayed behind, largely to be with his girlfriend and wife-to-be, Tess (Jennifer Morrison).

Brendan had a career as a fair-to-middling UFC fighter, but retired to provide a more stable environment for his two daughters. He teaches physics at a high school in Philadelphia, at least until he gets behind on his twice-refinanced mortgage. He takes an amateur fight or two to help make money, but this only gets him suspended without pay. This leaves him plenty of time to double-down on his choices, take up with his old trainer (Frank Grillo), and work towards entering a worldwide tournament in three months’ time.

Meanwhile, Tommy had a tour in the Marines and developed an alcohol problem, just like his old man. He shows up on Paddy’s front porch one night, drunk and bitter. He, too, wants to enter the big tournament, and asks his father to help train him, as that had worked out well for Tommy’s high school wrestling career.

Tommy’s story is really good, and both Hardy and Nolte are excellent. We watch Tommy move gradually towards detente, making peace with his history as we learn more about what brought him to this point. Brendan’s story, though, seems to center more on reinforcing traditional masculinity; it’s not enough to be a good husband and father to be a good man, and when push comes to shove a real man makes the decisions and his wife will eventually learn that he was right all along. But if he can win these fights by taking so much abuse, surely he can survive the belt-tightening Tess begs for.

I can see the dyad O’Connor and co-writer Cliff Dorfman try to set up between Tommy’s superhuman strength and Brendan’s superhuman endurance, but surely there’s a way to tell Tommy’s superior and underused story without Brendan’s. At almost two and a half hours, this is more lumbering hulk than lean and mean, and it could do with dropping some weight somewhere.

Ironically, though, Brendan’s fights are done far better than Tommy’s. They’ve got actual action and drama, while Tommy’s are done almost before they begin. As unbelievable as it is to have not just one but two fighters come from nowhere and be ranked among the sixteen best in the world in a matter of months, it’s even less satisfying to see three of the other contenders get knocked out with single punches.

But besides throwing far too much into the script, O’Connor has other problems when it comes to directing a fight movie. As soon as the tournament begins, he starts treating the audience like morons. The ringside announcers provide a never-ending stream of exposition, never trusting the audience to figure out the emotional dynamics of what the characters are feeling for themselves. I’ll resist the easy — and untrue — jabs at the mental abilities of UFC fans, but it feels like O’Connor affords them no such respect.

Nolte and Hardy are great and worth watching, as is Edgerton inside the cage. But there’s so much dross in severe need of editing that on balance I can’t recommend the film as it stands. There’d may even be a way to salvage Brendan’s story, Tommy’s fights, and their dynamic, but O’Connor is evidently not the director to bring that film to the screen.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail. And hard.

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