[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an entry in Oscars Death Race, Sarah D. Bunting's yearly quest to see every movie nominated for any kind of Academy Award. To view a scorecard, click here.]
Current Score: Oscars 45, Sarah 16 / categories completed: 1
Warrior is a lot of stories -- which is unfortunate, because it should have picked just one of them, or two, and we've seen pretty much all of them before regardless. Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy and his splendiferous saddle of neck muscles that has its own post office), a veteran whose departure from the armed forces is initially somewhat mysterious, returns to his hometown of Pittsburgh, looking to get back into mixed-martial arts. He's also looking to confront his estranged father and former coach, Paddy (Nick Nolte), about the crappy childhood he had to endure before Paddy got sober.
At the other end of Pennsylvania, Tommy's brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a physics teacher in Philly from whom Tommy is also estranged, is upside-down on his mortgage and supplementing his income with MMA fights in parking lots. What luck, then, that the MMA's World Series is coming up in Atlantic City, with a five-million-dollar winner-take-all purse! Gee, do you think the brothers will end up having to fight each other?
So, you've got a little Rocky going on with the scrappy underdogs; you've got a little The Fighter going on with the intra-fraternal resentments; you've got a little Million Dollar Baby over heeeere with the father figure trying to redeem himself, and a little Lights Out over theeeere with the wife who knowingly married a fighter and then made him promise not to fight ever again (Jennifer Morrison, doing what she can with the customary "I won't watch you fight AND ALSO DESTROY THIS FAMILY" scene). I really cannot abide that trope; if you don't want to marry a boxer, don't marry a boxer, but if the violence and the six-pack turn you on, take the good with the bad and stop trying to change the guy. Could one of these movies or TV shows please write the lady so she's with the fighter program? "Dang, the champ fucked your eye all up. That sucks, honey. Let's open a bottle of pinot and talk footwork."
…Rant over. (That one. For now.) The story also features the obligatory expositional voicing-over by various sports commentators and newscasters, to bring us up to speed on MMA rankings, why Tommy really left the Marines, and so on, and the movie is too long, too interested in dialogue shortcuts that don't work for the characters, and too reliant on cellos to make sure we know what to feel. After his big for-your-consideration scene, Nolte is functionally done in the movie; pacing-wise, it's somehow messy and also too neat.
But by the time we reach the climactic fight, the story has (excuse the pun) fought through the clichés and the overtaxed good-guy signifiers to arrive at some bracing stuff. The acting by Hardy and Edgerton is outstanding, which helps, and their final face-off gets at a raw truth about sibling relationships, about how much inchoate joy and hate they can simultaneously contain. Nolte's isn't the performance I'd have nominated, and I wouldn't say it asks anything new of him, but it's solid, even when he's obliged to pay off a heavy-handed reference to Moby Dick.
And Frank Campano (Frank Grillo), Brendan's second, is an interesting character; with his Beethoven and his mantras, he starts out like a gimmick, but the script sticks with it and doesn't forget what he is, and in the fight scenes, he's an island of calm and compassion. The Death Race has its unexpected pleasures, like an actor finally getting something good to do and doing the hell out of it, as Grillo does here.
It's not a great movie; it's not even good, really, if you add up all the parts. But by the end -- thanks to Hardy's second above-and-beyond performance of the film year, and to the story he and Edgerton tell together about the painful, sweaty, homecoming hug that is a family, sometimes -- the sum of those parts is intense and worthwhile. Give it a look.