Karate chop to the throat

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

The feverish mixed martial arts infomercial Warrior opens up so many cans of emotional whup-ass that after a while you think: Enough! It’s whupped! It’s whupped! And yet the tears will flow by the gallon.

Every time you start resisting, somehow the film makes the sale again. Director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor is a full-throated entertainer, meaning he goes for the throat every second. He’s also an escape artist, writing his characters into outlandishly clichéd corners and then charging his way out against unbelievable odds.

The acting elevates it, even when the narrative doesn’t. After a 14-year separation, Iraq War veteran Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) returns to the Pittsburgh home of his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), who is nearly three years sober. Paddy did an awful lot of physical and psychic damage to his family before drying out, however. In dribs and drabs Warrior leaks the details regarding how Paddy’s ex-wife and Brendan ( Joel Edgerton), Tommy’s older brother, fled the toxic home, while Paddy and Tommy stayed behind and suffered. Tommy’s trust in his abandoning brother turned to ash; Brendan married his high school sweetheart, played by Jennifer Morrison.

Years later, with kids and bills in his life, Brendan teaches high school physics and brawls, MMAstyle, for cash on the side. The bank’s due to foreclose on the house in 90 days. Solution: Compete in the event called Sparta, “the Super Bowl of mixed martial arts,” in Atlantic City.

That would be enough for a lot of films, but Warrior is a lot of films in one. Brendan’s estranged brother, Tommy, returns from combat with a major secret provoking all that rage and self-loathing. Though his brother doesn’t know it, Tommy, too, is after the $5 million MMA purse, and has his sights set on one of the 16 middleweight slots. Does the final match come down to brother against brother? I wouldn’t rule it out.

Over-the-top performances would’ve destroyed Warrior by the second scene. But O’Connor encourages a naturalistic low simmer, even though his story beats are all about kettles boiling over (and over). Tom Hardy, formidable in Bronson and soon to menace Batman in The Dark Knight Rises, plays the combustible veteran Tommy. Hardy, who is English, isn’t without his mannered edge, but he’s full of heat and unpredictable fire and responds well to the working-class Pittsburgh milieu. Australian-born Joel Edgerton brings a decency and likeability to Brendan. The characters never seem like real brothers (they’re movie brothers through and through), but the actors commit.

And it’s gratifying to see Nick Nolte do everything in his grumbly, shambling power to make a fully dimensional character out of Paddy.

O’Connor scored a popular success with the Olympic-hockey rouser Miracle and then fared less well with the drunken-father/dueling sons police melodrama Pride and Glory. Warrior lands somewhere in between in terms of quality.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond:letters@boulderweekly.com