Those perplexed by grizzled mumbler Nick Nolte’s nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category at this year’s Academy Awards may well be among those who missed his performance in last year’s remarkably good MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) drama Warrior (2011), directed by Gavin O’Connor and starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as two brothers forced into conflict due to their own relative circumstances. Nolte, Hardy and Edgerton are all superb in what has to stand as one of the finest films about violence as sport since Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008).
Long separated by their abusive father Paddy’s (Nolte) alcoholism and the tragic death of their mother, Pittsburgh-born brothers Tommy (Hardy) and Brendan Conlon (Edgerton) now lead very different lives. The former is a bulky US Marine, returning from the front-line a war hero, yet carrying with him a great deal of pent-up emotional baggage. In contrast, the latter is a dedicated, yet struggling high school physics teacher, forced back into local MMA bouts in order to make ends meet, ignoring the vehement protests of his young wife. Both brothers are lured by the huge winner’s fee offered to the victor of the Spartan contest, a multi-national MMA contest designed to discover the ‘toughest guy in the world’. Pulled apart by circumstance, the two brothers are inevitably brought together by fate as the contest draws to its finale.
So far, so Rocky. It’s certainly feasible to think that without the considerable talents of Hardy, Edgerton and Nolte, as well as the substantial directorial nous of O’Connor, Warrior could have ended up being yet another by-the-number Rocky clone – or this year’s The Fighter (2010). Fortunately, O’Connor’s effort retains a tangible air of cynicism towards physical violence, portraying our two sibling protagonists as victims of US foreign policy (Tommy) and the economic crisis (Brendan) respectively.
Another huge draw are the well-choreographed bouts, with O’Connor’s intelligent cinematography lending the scenes an almost balletic air of grace as opponents attempt to out-manoeuvre each other. Significantly, there is also little actual blood-letting, the film refusing to throw buckets of gore and viscera over its well-drawn, sympathetic leads. O’Connor’s selection of melancholy US group The National to bookend the film also proves an inspired choice.
Crassly summed up by one reviewer as ‘all of the Rocky’s rolled into one’ (whether this was a positive remark or back-handed compliment is arguable), Warrior is very much its own beast, a heavyweight, muscular exploration of modern America’s fascination with violent entertainment. Nolte may not trouble his competitors for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (that crown seems destined for veteran Christopher Plummer), yet O’Connor’s Warrior remains – for now at least – in a class of its own.