THE FIGHT FILM "Warrior" is like the rousing "Rocky" sequel that Stallone never thought of.
An alternative title might be "Rockys," and it poses an appealing question: What if Rocky fought Rocky?
"Warrior" answers that question in the context of mixed martial arts, with a story built around bitterly estranged brothers who enter a high-stakes, winner-take-all MMA tourney in Atlantic City, with every possibility they will have to fight each other for the title.
Aussie character actor Joel Edgerton is Brendan, a cash-strapped schoolteacher who returns to MMA as a way to fund suddenly escalating mortgage payments on the home he's about to lose.
Rising star Tom Hardy is Tommy, a troubled ex-Marine who fights as an outlet for his internal rage, fed by experiences in Iraq and by a family rift. The brothers grew up under an abusive and alcoholic father (Nick Nolte), and when the parents split, the boys were separated, physically and emotionally.
There are faint echoes here of "The Fighter," and in truth "Warrior" was filmed at the same time and held from release to sidestep the notion that it's an MMA knockoff.
It's not. "Warrior" is really a much different film from the indie-quirky "The Fighter." "Warrior" is comfortable in its sports-movie, genre clothes (directed by "Miracle" helmer Gavin O'Connor) and succeeds by virtue of its abundant pulp energy.
O'Connor wants unabashedly to build equal rooting interest in both brothers, and he very much succeeds - a tricky thing, since the men are fundamentally different. Brendan is a settled, suburban family man, a reluctant fighter who wants to reconcile with the brother he thought he'd lost forever.
Tommy is still an open psychological wound, who re-enters the lives of father and brother to settle old scores. Fighting is a way to channel his resentment into a brutal form of punishment. The scene of Tommy unleashing this dark energy for the first time in the ring is surely one of the best in recent sports movie history. (It's a shrewd performance by Hardy, who needs to make Tommy more than an angry thug, and does so by locating the confused, abandoned kid underneath.)
"Warrior" is also a true sports movie, one that reveals character through action. O'Connor shot hundreds of hours of fight footage, and uses it to shape his characters and to drive his story. The remarkable finale manages to resolve conflict with nary a spoken word. Not even "yo," or "Adrian."
To boot, the movie has a pulsating, recession-era populist streak, leaning on sympathy for moonlighting schoolteachers and neglected veterans tossed into an MMA cage to compete for cash put up by a bored hedge-fund dilettante, who can think of nothing better to do with his money than force hard-up people to fight for it.
Produced by Gavin O'Connor, Greg O'Connor, directed by Gavin O'Connor, written by Gavin O'Connor, Anthony Tambakis, Cliff Dorfman, music by Mark Isham Brendan, distributed by Lionsgate.