It may be unfair to compare mixed martial arts flick Warrior with last Christmas' widely acclaimed boxing biopic The Fighter. But they're both about two brothers punching other men—and sometimes each other—in the face. So let's get on with it: In The Fighter, Christian Bale plays a talented boxer who becomes a drug addict, and Mark Wahlberg plays his less-talented, underdog younger brother who is also a boxer.
In Warrior, Tom Hardy (Inception) plays a talented MMA fighter who goes to war and comes back popping pills and with a face puckered in a state of permanent bitterness, and Joel Edgerton (The Square) plays his less-talented, underdog older brother who is a high-school physics teacher and also an MMA fighter. Both pairs of siblings learn valuable lessons about family and forgiveness. Both spend a lot of time bloodied and shirtless.
Warrior is far more fanciful—the two brothers, unbeknownst to each other, end up fighting for a $5 million purse in the same world-class, eight-man MMA tournament in the most unlikely of circumstances—though the filmmakers appear to have put great thought into creating "real" characters whom American audiences can get behind. Hardy's character, Tommy, is a traumatized Iraq war vet, and Edgerton's Brendan is in danger of losing his family home to foreclosure.
Yet it's difficult to truly relate to either: Tommy just doesn't get enough character development to garner sympathy; Brendan puts his life and family on the line because he doesn't want to live in a smaller house. Nice parenting there, slugger.
It's no fault of the actors. Hardy was given an angry character to play and, by gum, he fills himself with so much rage the normally smokin' actor's body is physically contorted into the shape of a gargoyle for the entire film. Edgerton gives a solid performance as the likable everyman whose heart is bigger than his natural talent. And Nick Nolte outdoes them both as their raspy, alcoholic father desperately seeking his sons' forgiveness. But the film falls into too many tired Hollywood tropes (the every-shot-shows-a-little-improvement training montage is excruciating) and contrived plot devices to ever generate the kind of emotional investment The Fighter earned.
But in Warrior, the MMA sequences take a genuine starring role: About a quarter of the film is dedicated to the aforementioned tournament in all its bone-snapping glory. The fights are sweaty and dirty and shot right up in the actors' armpits and groins. There are a few dubious pro-wrestling moves thrown in for show, but for the most part, the bouts are painfully realistic and utterly engrossing. You won't care which of the brothers wins, but you will be on the edge of your seat to see how the bout is won.
The problem isn't really that Warrior, as a drama, can't go toe-to-toe with the likes of The Fighter—they're not even in the same weight class. It's that far too many of the film's 140 minutes are dedicated to that drama. The film's core demographic is going to be the 700,000-odd people who order pay-per-view UFC; I doubt they care how genuinely heart-tugging the characters' backstories are, and they probably don't want to see two hours of it before any real blood is shed. PG-13.
65 SEE IT. Warrior opens Friday at local theaters.