The boxing movie is the most durable of all sports subgenres, despite being by no means the most popular of sports. My private belief is that this is because boxing is the sport that best allows for individual narratives, rather than stories of teamwork (and it is customarily the case that American cinema does better with individual heroes than teams): stories of the rise or fall of a tough kid, usually of urban extraction, typically of antisocial mien and the wounded soul of a poet, that can only be teased out by the ministrations of a girl who knows that she'd be better off without him, but cannot help herself. In addition to being durable, the boxing movie tends to be awesomely formulaic, you see.
Warrior is, strictly speaking, not a boxing movie. It is a mixed martial arts movie, one of the few of its kind (Fighting, Never Back Down and Redbelt are the only others that leap to mind), and of course MMA has penetrated the popular consciousness so recently that there can hardly be said to be a grand tradition of MMA movies. But deep down, Warrior is a boxing movie that happens to feature MMA instead; the classicist in me is positively exuberant about this development, as it would seem to knock the dust of a genre that I've always enjoyed more than it deserves and give it some fancy new trappings for a generation for whom boxing sounds unbearably old-timey. Hell, it's two boxing movies, stapled together for our convenience: there's the Angry Son with a Dark Past Reconnects with his Estranged Dad to Train for the Big Fight story, and there's the Good Husband with a Violent Past is Thrust Back Into Fighting for Money to Save His House and Family story, with just the swellest hook: the Angry Son and the Good Husband turn out to be estranged brothers who haven't spoken since the day that everything changed when the young brother and their mom fled Dad's drunken tyranny, and the older brother stayed behind to marry his sweetheart. Oh, and they both totally hate their father for being a cruel alcoholic, though now he's in recovery, closing in fast on this 1000th day sober, and he desperately wants to mend bridges that his sons are happiest leaving burnt.
So much melodrama! So much angst! So much opportunity for burly men to act barbaric and tough as a shield for their real emotions, which spill out in hurtful scenes that make it okay for the dudes in the audience to tear up at a movie without it being girly. The dirty truth of the matter is, in the whole 139 minutes of Warrior (which is much too long for a boxing/MMA movie, even if it is two of them), only one thing actually needs to work, and it does: and that is the scene in which the brothers, locked in one-on-one combat for the big championship, finally have the emotional release they've needed for Lord knows how many years, and able to begin the process of rebuilding. Everything else is just window dressing: whatever gender a weeper is designed for, the important part is that when it gently treads on your heartstrings after all the pieces are in place, you get sniffly.
Whatever its other sins - they are not small - Warrior gets that bit right. This has everything to do with Tom Hardy, as the sullen angry brother, and Joel Edgerton, as the mournful brother with a family of his own, being much, much better at playing their characters than Gavin O'Connor, Anthony Tambakis, & Cliff Dorfman were at writing them, and with O'Connor in the director's chair making the wise decision to stay the hell out of their way. And I guess I've just gone and spoiled the whole thing, except Jesus Christ. There's not a single unexpected beat anywhere in the whole plot of Warrior, and certainly not the fact that when both brothers miraculously (too-miraculously, really) end up in the same international MMA tournament with a winner-take-all $5 million purse at the end of it - and Edgerton's Brendan Conlon not even being a professional fighter! - they will end up facing one another in the final bout, because if didn't end that way, there would be no reason to tell this story. As a wise fella once said, "Wallace Beery. Wrestling picture. Whadda ya need, a road map?"
Which is well and good when you're making something like e.g. Body and Soul, an exquisite 1947 boxing film starring John Garfield that uses the tropes of the genre as a springboard. Warrior uses its familiarity as a crutch, and this is not entirely bad. One needs comfort food from time to time. And yet, during all of the many fights that were brother vs. brother, it's hard not to bristle at the filmmakers' attempts to convince that oh noes, he's about to lose! No, he isn't. Because if he does, then he can't make it to the foreordained climax. When a film's predictability gets in the way of its drama being compelling or effective, that is a problem.
Though I suppose that the justification for the dramatic, intense fights is meant to be the fighting itself, and this is to me the other flaw of Warrior: it is structured in a very particular way, in which the first half-and-some is all about the horrible emotional damage that exists between Brendan Conlon and his brother Tommy Riordan and their miserable, insufficiently penitent father Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), and then after a certain point it abruptly becomes all about fighting. The shift recalls those '30s musicals where the first hour was bitchy backstage shenanigans, and the last 20 minutes were just one dance number on top of the other; those movies at least had the excuse of coming out during a painful transition period. Warrior is structured to put as much weight as possible on the MMA sequences, and this is a good idea except that it runs the risk that the viewer does not care about MMA. The very best boxing movies never required the viewer to enjoy boxing* in order to get the point of the movie, and the way that Warrior spends a solid 40 minutes as nothing but a feature film about the glories of mixed martial arts is... not a "flaw". It's what the movie wants to be. Let us merely say, it unduly limits the film's ability to be effective.
Still and all, the thing ends up resting not on the well-crafted if potentially uninteresting fight scenes, but on the interplay between Edgerton, Hardy, and Nolte (and Jennifer Morrison as Edgerton's wife, a miserly, thankless role that the actress exploits to its fullest potential, and it is surely a sign of the movie's implicit Boys Only mentality that she's not getting more notice for the thing), and in a lumbering, wildly unsubtle way, the three actors get to the meat of the film in a way that the film itself never manages to. Edgerton's glassy-eyed terror at the unstoppable forces of a weak economy ends up being more impressive than Hardy looking despondent and mean - for it requires him to work more, given that Hardy looks despondent and mean just standing there - and both are better than Nolte's obvious Oscarbaiting, but all three men do the best they can by their characters, and despite being obvious and trite and criminally overlong, Warrior sneaks its way into being a genuinely moving study of male familial relationships. Not the most original of subjects, I grant. But manly men need a good cry too, sometimes.