In Philadelphia, his estranged brother, high school physics teacher Brendan (Joel Edgerton, “Animal Kingdom”), is a family man upside-down on his mortgage.
Dire circumstances force the two independently to enter a winners-take-all, mixed-martial-arts tournament in Atlantic City, with “all” equating to a prize of $5 million. For Tommy, it’s a chance to move away from a very troubled past whose details are only hinted at. For Brendan, it’s to save his wife (Jennifer Morrison, TV’s “Once Upon a Time”) and two young kids from homelessness, especially after his make-ends-meet tussles for quick cash at strip joints get him suspended for a semester; says his principal boss, “This isn’t moonlighting at Applebee’s!”
For viewers, it’s “Warrior,” a highly rewarding, highly emotional film that — pardon me — packs a hefty dramatic punch. It’s also one of the best sports films you’ll ever see — even better than that 1976 Best Picture Oscar winner, “Rocky.” Seriously.
“Rocky” wasn’t the first movie to champion the underdog, but its pop-culture resonance unleashed a slew of imitators — including “Rocky II” and the sequels that followed — that ran with its template. Even “Warrior”‘s director, Gavin O’Connor, did one with 1994’s effective, if unoriginal hockey drama, “Miracle.”
Here, however, as with last year’s “The Fighter,” the formula seems fresh, renewed. The ending is not so predetermined, and the journey there makes this extra-special. The sibling rivalry drives the climactic moments, but their individual struggles, operating separately, fuel the bulk of the film.
We’re only given small clues about the cause of the brothers’ and father’s fracture. Less-intelligent pictures would have spelled everything out, perhaps even in “here, dumbo” flashbacks, but O’Connor gives you just enough to understand the reasoning for the bad blood without knowing exactly where, why and how it spilled.
I’m surprised “Warrior” didn’t become a word-of-mouth smash in theaters, because it’s cast in that crowd-pleasing brand that puts butts in seats. We’ll blame mismarketing and hope home video will give it the audience it deserves, because this one has all the ingredients to be the next “Shawshank Redemption”: ignored at first, later beloved by millions.
After the emotional ringer “Warrior” puts you through, viewing the disc’s gag reel seems downright wrong. Instead, click over to a deleted scene that demonstrates why Nolte, when he can brush the tabloid antics aside, still has a lot of fight left in him. —Rod Lott