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WARRIOR (2011) (***1/2)

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The central mixed martial arts event in this film is called Sparta and it is a fitting name to attach to such a Greek-like drama between fathers and sons and brother versus brother. As a sports drama, it skillfully weaves together both a separate comeback and underdog tale, with the tales colliding in the end. Combining melodrama and character complexity, this simple tale has the emotional power of a piledriver.

Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy, INCEPTION) hasn't seen his father Paddy (Nick Nolte, AFFLICTION) since he and his mother ran away when he was a teen. Now a broken man, going by his mother's maiden name, Tommy wants something from his former alcoholic dad – train him to enter a winner take all MMA tournament. He doesn't want to reconnect with his father, only train. In a sick way, Tommy dangling a reconnection in front of his dad is no worse than if he dangled a bottle of whiskey.

Tommy has no desire to reconnect with his older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton, ANIMAL KINGDOM) either. Paddy tries to visit Brendan, but he too doesn't want anything to do with his dad. He stayed behind when his brother and mother left for his then girlfriend, now wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison, TV's HOUSE). Due to mounting medical bills from his daughter's heart condition, Brendan has stepped back in the ring, despite promising his wife that since becoming a high school Physics teacher he wouldn't. They need the money and he refuses to lose their home. He goes back to his old trainer Frank Campana (Frank Grillo, MINORITY REPORT), who is working with a fighter preparing for Sparta.

Brendan and Tommy's paths couldn't be more different and yet the same. Tommy made himself an overnight name when a YouTube video of him destroying a top contender in a sparing match went viral. He is like an animal unchained when he enters the cage, mowing down opponents like they weren't even there. During high school, he was a promising champion wrestler until he and his mother left. Brendan, on the hand, is an underdog, who has always lived in the shadow of his younger brother. He doesn't have the same brute force, but he has stamina and skill.

On the surface, Brendan seems like the easier of the two to root for. He is fighting to save his family and to prove himself. Tommy is cruel and cold. We know that his resentments fuel his anger and brutality in the cage. We fear what could happen if he does get his hands on his brother. But he has secrets and those secrets are key to his motivations as well. This is a story of broken men finding some resolution. Even Paddy tries to bring his family together knowing that it was he who caused them to be torn apart.

While this has melodramatic tones, the conviction of the three central performers makes it believable. Hardy is intense on a scary level. The fear that he is going to hurt someone, and himself in the process, is palpable. Edgerton, who has the geek cred of playing Luke's Uncle Owen in the STAR WARS prequels, is emerging as a promising new leading man. Like he did in ANIMAL KINGDOM, he has a masculine quality that is still refined. In a sport where his opponents strike thoughts of unhinged beasts, his Brendan feels like a gentleman boxer from a different era. Then we get to Nolte, whose performance is his best since his last Oscar nominated performance in AFFLICTION. It's not that he plays a recovering alcoholic so well, but the vulnerability he brings to the role that speaks volumes about his character that dialogue could not convey.

One might argue that men working out their issues by beating each other to a pulp is not very sophisticated. But others might describe it as accurate. The detail that makes director Gavin O'Connor, Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman's script so solid is the actions of the brothers in the ring speak of their complex problems. On a larger level, the film is not just about family, but what family means.

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Rick DeMott
Animation World Network
Creator of Rick's Flicks Picks