Warrior opens with a welter of Christian iconography and references: a Pittsburgh church adorned with Eastern-style three-bar crosses from which we see Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) emerge; a rosary dangling from his rearview mirror as he drives home to discover his estranged son Tommy (Tom Hardy) waiting on the stoop of his house; a Bible that Tommy contemplates on Paddy’s table.
“So you found God. That’s awesome,” Tommy says softly, meaning the opposite. “Mom kept calling out for him … but he wasn’t around. I guess Jesus was down at the mill, forgiving all the drunks, huh? Who knew?”
Jesus may have forgiven Paddy, but Paddy’s sons haven’t. His drinking and violence drove his wife away when Tommy and his older brother Brendan were teenagers. Tommy went with mom, but Brendan, 16, stayed with his dad, partly for the sake of the girl he later married. Now, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a high-school physics teacher, lives in Philadelphia with his wife (Jennifer Morrison) and two young girls. Tommy, a loner, joined the Marines like his old man. The boys, who haven’t seen each other since the breakup, have nothing in common, except for one thing: As Tommy tells their father, “Neither of us has the slightest use for you.”
Well, that and cage fighting, or mixed martial arts (MMA). Both brothers have a past in pugilism: In his 20s, Brendan was a professional cage fighter, if an indifferent one, while the more naturally gifted Tommy won six Junior Olympic titles in his youth, with his father as his trainer. Now Brendan, struggling to provide for his family, is eying his past career for quick cash, while Tommy wants to turn to prizefighting for reasons we don’t learn right away. If you sense that this setup will soon lead to brother battling brother for a tournament championship, you may have seen a sports movie before, or perhaps you just saw the tell-all trailer.
While the God references drop off after that opening scene, themes of redemption and forgiveness run through Warrior. The entire third act is taken up with a glitzy winner-take-all tournament in Atlantic City, branded as “Sparta,” but despite round after round of punishing combat, Warrior is more about its characters’ wounded hearts than the external injuries they suffer or inflict.
Parallels to last year’s The Fighter are obvious: two pugilist brothers, one a dominant front-runner with a promising past and self-destructive tendencies, favored by a parent acting in a professional capacity for the sons; the other a more reserved, levelheaded underdog, resenting the favoritism given to the other brother, but not the brother himself.
Like Christian Bale in The Fighter, Tom Hardy has startlingly transformed himself both physically and dramatically. Sporting a bulked-up, ripped physique, the English actor (whose first line in Inception flagged him as a scene-stealing talent) persuasively morphs into a brooding Northeast roughneck with a crushing burden of rage and guilt.
As the gentle, less dominant brother, Edgerton is stronger and more effective than Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter. They’re like Brando’s Terry Malloy from On the Waterfront vs. Russell Crowe’s Jimmy Braddock from Cinderella Man. One could also say Edgerton plays Faramir to Hardy’s Boromir, but with enough strength to keep Hardy from overshadowing him the way Sean Bean overshadowed David Wenham in The Lord of the Rings.
As the father who, like Denethor, preferred the alpha-male son to his beta brother, but has now lived long enough to be rejected by them both, Nolte is heartbreaking: a broken-down, needy shell of a man. There’s a sort of warped Trinitarian dynamic here: Paddy, the father, makes rejected overtures to both of his sons; Brendan rejects his father but reaches out to Tommy, while Tommy rejects both the father and the elder son.
Supporting performances are also effective. As Brendan’s wife, Jennifer Morrison doesn’t have as strong of a part as Amy Adams in The Fighter, but she’s winsome in the role. Frank Grillo makes a strong impression as a gym owner and trainer (also named Frank) whose unconventional methods include using Beethoven to teach fighters calm and patience. I also enjoyed the humor supplied by the tag-team of sportscasters at Sparta and the principal at Brendan’s school.
As the story unfolds, we come to understand some of the characters’ circumstances and choices better, and the reasons for those choices appear in a new light. In spite of this smart structuring, though, O’Connor and his co-writers Cliff Dorfman and Anthony Tambakis haven’t plotted much of an arc for their characters, who remain pretty static throughout the film.
Tommy clings unyieldingly to his grudges with the tenacity of a dog with a bone. Brendan talks about forgiveness, but is even harsher with the old man than his brother. There are a couple of redemptive flashes, notably a moving scene involving Paddy and one of his sons, and, of course, a small but significant climactic breakthrough. But one of the key relationships, at least, still seems untouched at the end.
Warrior is being marketed to Christians as well as MMA fans. If that strikes you as a counterintuitive combination, think again. MMA is becoming increasingly popular in evangelical circles as a way of connecting to men. Churches organize outings to fights, and, in some cases, even have programs for training fighters. From an eye-opening article by a former cage fighter who went on to enroll in divinity school, I learn that there are companies with names like Jesus Didn’t Tap that market Christian MMA apparel, while websites like AnointedFighter.com promise to help you “master your walk with Christ while mastering the martial arts.”
It must be said that pugilism has a long history in Catholic culture: boxing in Catholic boys’ clubs, for instance. Given sufficient safeguards to minimize the risk of serious injury, pugilism and martial arts are compatible with Catholic morality.
Professional boxing and MMA, though, raise serious moral concerns. The fundamental goal in boxing is to degrade your opponent’s capacity to defend himself, either by battering him into an impaired state or, if possible, delivering a knockout blow. MMA adds grappling techniques and allows for other ways of winning, such as submission holds and tapouts, but incapacitating one’s opponent remains a highly desirable goal.
This is morally different, for instance, from injuries incurred in football, which may be serious enough to warrant moral concern but are not a direct goal of the game itself. In football, a tackle trying to prevent the quarterback from making a throw may have to knock down a guard to do it, or he may be able to dodge past him; either way, in principle what counts is whether or not the quarterback makes the throw, not who does or doesn’t get hurt in the process. (That’s not to say that players never directly try to harm one another, or that serious injuries don’t occur regardless of intentions — only that points aren’t awarded based on who has been harmed.)
In professional boxing and MMA, incapacitating your opponent means you win and he loses. I see no way to avoid the conclusion that this is repugnant to the Fifth Commandment and the obligations of charity, potentially gravely so, particularly when multiplied by the incessant punishment and harm that professional fighters endure over years of training and competition.
Though concessions to safety have been made in MMA’s development from the early days of Ultimate Fighting, there is still too much of the spirit of the Roman gladiatorial blood sport in both MMA and professional boxing. One can respect the skill and courage of the fighters, but the big winners are corporate bosses who grow wealthy on fighters, trading away their well-being for the entertainment of patrons whose money drives the whole machine.
The Fighter acknowledged this exploitative side of the business as well as the physical cost of the punishment fighters take. Warrior takes a more uncritical, glamorized view of the sport. In spite of this, viewed critically, the film’s human story remains affecting, and the characters’ actions, if not always the outcomes, are believably drawn.
For some viewers, I’m sure Warrior will be a knockout, a movie that comes on strong, like Tommy, and leaves them flat. For me, it came on more like Brendan, showing some weaknesses, taking some hits, but in the end wrangling me to the ground and forcing me into submission. I yield. Despite reservations, Warrior is worth seeing.
Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: Much intense pugilism violence; some profanity, an obscenity and much crude language; brief mild innuendo; a scene of drunkenness. Mature viewing.