Gavin O’Conner’s Warrior is a sports melodrama centered on two down-on-their-luck working class heroes and estranged brothers forced to fight through the screenwriter’s heavy hand in a gladiatorial contest for, among other things, a $5 million purse.

Crass, cheap and crudely manipulative, Warrior will please mixed-martial-arts fans and, depending on their tolerance for contrivance and manipulation, escapist-oriented moviegoers.

Warrior proceeds along two parallel tracks, intersecting occasionally before ultimately converging in the climactic MMA fight—a non-spoiler given the barrage of TV ads and trailers that reveal that much. One storyline follows Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), a thirty-something, high-school physics teacher and former UFC fighter with serious financial problems.

He’s underwater on his mortgage, due to heavy medical expenses (his daughter’s heart surgery). He takes a low-level fight in a parking lot to earn extra cash, a short-sighted decision that leads to his suspension from the school board for the remainder of the semester. That, in turn, spurs Brendan to seek out his former trainer, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo), who is known for his “unconventional” training techniques (which we never see). Brendan’s wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), understandably frets at the physical risk Brendan faces every time he steps into the ring.

In the other storyline, Brendan’s long-estranged younger brother, Tommy (Tom Hardy), a former Marine, returns to Pittsburgh after a tour in Iraq. Tommy appears, almost magically, at the doorstep of his alcoholic father’s, Paddy (Nick Nolte), house. A 12-stepper with, as he repeatedly proclaims, 1,000 days of sobriety, Paddy welcomes Tommy’s return. Tommy, however, doesn’t want to reconnect with his father. He wants Paddy, his one-time high-school trainer, to train him for a return to MMA fighting.

Without breaking a sweat, Tommy puts a beatdown on Pete “Mad Dog” Grimes (Erik Apple), a middleweight contender, at a local gym, bringing him to the attention of the gym’s owner, Colt Boyd (Maximiliano Hernández). Boyd gets Tommy into a newly formed competition, Sparta. Created by a hedge fund manager turned fight promoter on a convenient whim, Sparta will determine the best middleweight fighter via eight fights spread over two nights.

Tommy gets in via the beatdown, Brendan via a fluke, setting both on a highly improbable, highly implausible journey to Sparta’s finals. O’Conner uses every narrative trick at his disposal to create two sympathetic characters. He’s not above piling woe upon woe on both his characters, making them victims, first of their (formerly) monstrous father then of circumstances beyond their control (their mother’s untimely death), and economic hard times. He gives Brendan a daughter with a heart defect to remove Brendan’s responsibility for his ill-timed house-buying decision. He makes Tommy a war hero who refuses to take credit for saving several men in the middle of a firefight.

O’Conner continues the coarse audience manipulation when Brendan and Tommy enter the ring. Brendan’s the underdog fighter with a barely .500 record who, despite his age and lack of recent fights against top-tier talent, loses almost every match before winning, almost miraculously (he takes a pounding, but keeps on fighting). Tommy’s the exact opposite. He’s a ferocious fighter, attacking his opponents from the opening bell, only letting up when he’s either knocked out his opponent or they’ve tapped out. Tommy has a purpose for fighting beyond the need to crush his inner demons (though there is that), but like everything else in Warrior, it serves O’Conner’s central purpose to batter moviegoers into submitting into his brand of crude storytelling (and most will, submit that is).

At times, Edgerton and, especially Hardy, make Warrior almost watchable. As dueling brothers, they might not look physically alike, but their few, tense-filled scenes manage to feel authentic and genuine when so little else does. Edgerton has the easier role. His character is instantly more likeable. He’s a family man, a teacher who, on the scant evidence onscreen, loves to teach (and his students seem to love him too). Hardy has to do more with much less. Tommy’s inexpressive, introverted, damaged. He’s rage (almost) personified. Hardy’s Tommy keeps a low stance, ready, even eager to fight, monosyllabic, determined to will his way through physical and emotional obstacles. To call it Brando-esque might be over-praising Hardy’s performance, but it’s certainly close. Hardy already showed potential in Bronson three years ago and, to a lesser extent, a scene-stealing turn in last year’s Inception. Warrior confirms that potential, making him an actor worth watching, even in sub-par entertainment like Warrior.

Rating 2 out of 5.

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