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In my review for The Fighter, I began with a simple thought: “If you’ve seen one sports story, you’ve seen them all.” At that point, it seemed true. Though still a good movie, The Fighter was nevertheless overrated. It was predictable and formulaic to a fault, despite some solid performances. It was just like every other sports drama I had seen. But now it appears I’ll be eating those words because Warrior stands apart from the crowd. It’s a unique film in an overabundant genre and it gets nearly everything right. It’s so good, I'm a little tempted to go back and bump all my recent scores down a point because nothing so far this year has come close to matching it. It may be getting the same score as Kung Fu Panda 2 and the last Harry Potter, but make no mistake, Warrior is superior in nearly every way.

The film begins with Tommy (Tom Hardy) sitting on the steps of his father, Paddy’s (Nick Nolte), house. They haven’t seen each other in 14 years, but there’s a reason for that. Paddy was a drunk and it tore the family apart. Tommy has never been able to forgive his father for his past mistakes, despite the fact that he has been sober for over two and a half years, but he is seeking his help anyway. He needs a trainer so he can fight in “Sparta,” a mixed martial arts tournament that is handing over five million dollars to its winner. Meanwhile, his brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), with whom he also has bad relations, is having financial problems and cannot pay his mortgage. If he can’t come up with the money soon, the bank is going to take his home. Being a former UFC fighter (and a family man), he can’t let that happen and also enters into the tournament, unaware that he could end up facing Tommy.

Warrior is as gripping a sports drama as any that has come out in recent memory. A big part of that is due to its refusal to follow the typical path sports dramas usually take. Because the two estranged brothers are pitted against each other (a story point that shouldn’t be considered a spoiler given the all too revealing trailers), it gives the film more depth. Their fight is not one of glory or fame and the money is merely a means to an end, to solve whatever problems and battle whatever demons they might be facing. Their fight is one of emotion, an emotion that has been building for many years and for many reasons. This is not a feel good movie where there’s a clear team or person to root for like in Remember the Titans or The Express (or, for that matter, most other similar movies). In Warrior, you are presented with conflicting emotions because both fighters have noble motives, one to protect his family from bankruptcy and the other I’ve deliberately kept mysterious to avoid spoilers. You come to feel for each of them and wish for both to be victorious, but it’s an outcome that is simply impossible.

All of this works because of the actors. Hardy and Edgerton both show the desperation their characters are going through, though one is more an inner turmoil, ashamed of something he has done and wishing to make it right. Their performances bring their characters to life and though they talk a lot about forgiving others, it’s in their mannerisms that you can tell what they really need to do is forgive themselves. The real standout, however, is Nick Nolte in a comeback role for the ages. In recent years, he has done little more than voice work in garbage like Zookeeper and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and it’s nice to actually see him in a role that doesn’t require him to hide behind CGI animals. His character is trying to turn things around and wants nothing more than to reconnect with the sons he regretfully neglected so many years ago and his performance is heartbreaking. While this movie deserves a number of nods come awards season, if Nolte isn’t nominated for an Oscar, it should be considered a crime against cinema.

I’m not a fan of mixed martial arts. To me, it’s nothing more than senseless, barbaric violence. It’s a sport that if done in the street will land you in jail, but surround yourself with a cage and suddenly it becomes acceptable. I simply do not understand the fascination of watching two men beat the living daylights out of each other for sport, but that’s what’s so great about Warrior. It’s not about the sport. It’s about the characters. It’s about the drama. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about family. It’s about everything but mixed martial arts. In this movie, MMA is merely a tool used to create deeper meaning, a metaphor for the struggles the characters are going through. You may hate the sport as much as I do, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing this film. It’s not what you expect—it’s not cheesy like The Blind Side or emotionally manipulative like, well, any other sports drama—it’s raw and real. It’s as gripping as movies get.

Warrior receives 5/5

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