It sounds like a premise straight out of Kickboxer 7 or No Retreat No Surrender 14: two long-estranged (and very different) brothers are brought together by sheer circumstance and get to battle each other on a global stage for the world championship of (some manly sport) while their sad-sack papa stands ringside. You'd certainly be forgiven if you opted to avoid a film with such a premise, so prevalent are these cable-ready punchfests, and look for something a bit more unique. Then you'd probably miss out on one of the most sincerely effective "sports flicks" in quite some time. I'll leave it to the historians to rank Gavin O'Connor's Warrior among the all-time finest, but suffice to say that there's a really excellent (and enjoyably basic) sports flick tucked inside Mr. O'Connor's remarkably sincere and heartfelt two-headed character study.
Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is a good guy in every sense of the word: He's a great high school teacher with an adoring wife and two cute kids -- but he's almost broke. In an effort to pay the bills, Brendan returns to the one thing he's good at: organized MMA fighting. (That'd be "mixed martial arts," and it's pretty darn brutal.) But when the school board discovers that one of their faculty members is brawling in strip club parking lots, Brendan's money issues go from boiling to overflowing.
Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) has just returned home after more than a decade of wandering. He has little use for his stunned father (Nick Nolte) and even less for his total stranger of a big brother. All we know for sure about Tommy is that he nursed his mother on her deathbed, he fought in the war, and he has a seriously bad attitude.
One brother is fighting to save his family's home; the other is fighting for simple yet mysterious redemption. Throw in a few legitimately excellent supporting performances, a heart-wrenching turn by the great Nick Nolte, and a screenplay that consistently trades convention for numerous dashes of well-earned emotion and depth of character ... and then throw all that into a blender with one of the most rousing "boxing" stories in quite some time and you're looking at a solid little winner that will have you feeling a little bit jazzed on your way out of the theater. (I put "boxing" in quotes because, although Warrior resembles several of the best boxing flicks, it's also the instant king of "mixed martial arts" movies.)
I could spend an entire paragraph throwing around phrases like "quietly noble" (Joel Edgerton) or "powerfully intense" (Tom Hardy) but there are only so many ways to say that the two leads are great. Take all the sports and fighting out of Warrior and these guys would still turn it into a fantastic little drama about two angry brothers. The heart of the piece, of course, belongs to Nick Nolte, who runs the gamut from drunkenly belligerent to painfully heartbreaking without missing a beat. The man does more with his eyebrows than most actors do with an entire screenplay.
Bringing the same welcome dose of "character over competition" that he did to the hockey flick Miracle, O'Connor approaches his potentially generic sports tale by laying a strong foundation of legitimate reality. (Or at least as real as things get in sports movies, even well-made ones.) In other words, if you like your sports movies to be about people first and the game second, you'll have a grand time with Warrior. It's formulaic all the way, but it's been a long while since the formula has been polished up this well.