Raging Bull, Rocky, even Real Steel. Sometimes, it feels as if there is just no more mileage left in the underdog fighting tale. That there must be only so many punch-ups an audience can take.
And then along comes Warrior, under a year since its close cousin The Fighter took two Oscars and was nominated for five more. Like that film, Warrior is about two brothers, both gifted at punching people’s lights out (here in mixed martial arts) and both at odds with their families and each other.
Could there really be an appetite for such a similar tale?
The answer is, there shouldn’t be. And Warrior, with its unlikely premise and coincidences (it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the brothers, of course, end up fighting each other), shouldn’t work at all.
But somehow it does, largely thanks to compelling characterisation and tight direction that, for the most part, prevents the story from descending into well-trod melodrama.
When Tommy Conlon (Hardy) returns to Pittsburgh to his father’s home, one that he fled with his mother as a teenager to escape his drunk of a dad (Nolte), he’s not looking for reconciliation, just a coach to train him for Sparta, a mixed martial arts competition with a $5 million prize.
Tommy is an ex-marine with a dark secret - and an ex-pro fighter too. His father’s sobriety and regret are wasted on him; he’s a raging ball of bitterness and anger, champing at the bit for some violent release.
Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy’s innate air of underlying integrity make them both perfect for their roles, particularly in the case of Hardy, whose brutality and bulked-up form (which will come in handy when he appears as the mighty villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises next year) make his sadness all the more affecting.
But it’s not just his face – the boy can act too; the scene where he is confronted with the magnitude of his father’s struggle against alcoholism is superbly done, Tommy’s inner conflict between boyish hate and fraternal pity coming to the fore.
As the father trying to win back his sons, Nolte is outstanding and almost unbearably wretched. The skill – and novelty - of Warrior is that we feel sorry for everybody in it. For once, we root for all of the main parts, even though they are fighting amongst themselves, and hope that no one loses.
There is a lot going on here and the desire to show three different perspectives as well as several back stories does mean the film darts about a fair bit – occasionally to the detriment of its internal logic. It’s never fully explained, for example, why Tommy decided to come home to the father he hates. Can he really not find a trainer elsewhere?
That’s splitting hairs though, really. All in all, this is a meaner, more complex beast than The Fighter, and the jolty camera work and amplified huffing and puffing from the fighters themselves all make for a much grittier ride that reflects the more lawless nature of cage-fighting.
This is a blistering and well-observed emotional drama that does a terrific job of being much, much more than just a fistfight. Perhaps, dare we say it, an even better job than The Fighter.