Pity the fool to come out with the first big-budget sports film since "The Fighter," one of the genre's very best. But Gavin O'Connor, who directed the 2004 film "Miracle," about 1980 USA Olympic hockey team, is as qualified as anyone to try, and the man's unique understanding of sports drama allow him to pull off "Warrior," a piece of fiction that on its face is laughably improbable but ends up landing more punches than it whiffs.
Tom Hardy stars as Tommy Conlon, an ex-Marine back from the Gulf who's taken to drinking and pill-popping. Tommy wants his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), three years sober and living alone, to prepare him for an upcoming MMA tournament with a top prize of $5 million. Meanwhile, across the state, Tommy's estranged brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is working as a high school chemistry teacher, but he's also been fighting in parking lot bouts to keep up with his mortgage. Unbeknownst to Tommy, Brendan decides to enter the same tournament, setting the men on a collision course in the finals.
The plotting is totally paint-by-numbers, the characters are completely arch and the film overreaches by trying to discuss teacher pay, upside-down mortgages, our nation's treatment of its veterans, the justness of our military adventures in the Middle East - "Warrior" tries too hard to be current. And the obligatory training sequence feels gimmicky and overlong, with no sense of the story or characters being helped along, and O'Connor too often brings the camera too close to the action in the ring, making it difficult to see and understand what's happening.
But O'Conner gets a great performance out of Hardy, and three very good ones from Nolte (delivering a classic moment of crazed, splitting madness while listening to "Moby Dick"—the book, not the Led Zeppelin song--on a discman), Edgerton and Jennifer Morrison as Brendan's wife, Tess. Coupled with O'Connor's sense of pacing and restraint, the film succeeds far more than it fails. He never goes over the top with the drama, melo- or otherwise, most effectively at the film's most crucial moment, when the final fight between the brother's ends - the beat of silence broken by The National's Matt Berninger's baritone is just right.