Combine the sibling tensions and hopped-up dysfunction of The Fighter with the working-class underdog heroics of Rocky, pile on big heaps of corn, and throw it all into an Ultimate Fighting Championship cage, and you have the crazily enjoyable Warrior.
A Keystone State saga - one brother teaches in Philly, the other shows up out of nowhere at his pop's door in Pittsburgh - Warrior, like the sport of mixed martial arts it celebrates, is anything but subtle. Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) has a wife, a kid, and a mortgage that's gone upside-down. A high school physics teacher, he long ago promised the missus (Jennifer Morrison) that he'd stop fighting. He was good, very good, but the blood and the bruises were too much.
Now, facing foreclosure on their home, Brendan starts moonlighting: mixing it up in strip-club parking lots for a few hundred dollars a win.
At the other end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) materializes at the Pittsburgh home where he and Brandon grew up. Mom has long since passed away, and Dad (Nick Nolte) is on the wagon, in AA, nursing his coffees and regretting the years of drunken abuse he doled out to his family.
Brendan won't have anything to do with him, and now, here's Tommy, who had joined the Marines and then disappeared, wanting his dad - Paddy's his name - to whip him into shape for "the Super Bowl of mixed martial arts" - the War at the Shore, an Atlantic City fightfest with a $5 million prize.
It's the same event that Brendan, unbeknownst to his estranged brother and father, decides to make a run for, enlisting a New Age-y trainer (Frank Grillo) to get him in fighting trim. "Feel the Beethoven" is this sports guru's motto - cue "Ode to Joy" and the training montages.
And there you have Warrior's twin trajectories: Tommy, the ex-Marine living with the demons of his experience in Iraq, asking his father, who trained him in high school (where he was a Junior Olympics wrestler) to put him through his regimen again, and Brendan, "on the wrong side of 30," trying to hold on to his house and his pride, pumping weights, sparring, determined to make it to the final round.
Guess where this is going.
Steeped in recession-era blues - economic hard times, the aftershocks of Iraq - Warrior takes its time getting to the Big Showdown in Atlantic City, and the big revelation that brother is competing against brother.
But Gavin O'Connor, the director (he did Pride and Glory, a saga about a cop family), knows what he's doing. And the two leads, Edgerton and Hardy, pull off their respective roles - rising above the cliches and the melodrama - with ferocity and focus. (It's interesting that neither is American: Edgerton's from Australia, and played one of the brothers in Animal Kingdom; Hardy's a Brit, and was in Inception.)
As for Nolte, the gravel-voiced veteran has a role overflowing with pathos. Paddy Conlon is a broken man, a character full of trembling remorse and bad memories, this close to falling off the wagon and crying in his beer.
He needs to feel the Beethoven.