The other half of the Conlon siblings is the less compelling one, though it sticks with the film’s idea of counterintuitive masculine role models. Brendan is introduced in the middle of a makeover being given to him by one one of his daughters at her birthday party. A charismatic teacher by day, Brendan and wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) are struggling to find financial breathing room after mortgaging their home to pay for medical bills. Tess would be happy to downsize and save money, but Brendan refuses to go backwards from their McMansion and begins fighting in bar parking lot bouts to pay the bills. Though successful based on UFC experience in his younger days, Brendan can’t hide the evidence of his fights from his principal (Kevin Dunn) and gets suspended. With all this free time, he can now train for the same tournament that Tommy’s entered, but as he’s still estranged from both Tommy and Paddy, he joins up with old coach Frank Campana (Frank Grillo) to get back into fighting shape.
A man attempting to stay safely ensconced in domestic bliss is never going to be as dramatic as the tragic backstory that the film gradually doles out for Tommy. Brendan’s parts of the film have significantly lower stakes and O’Connor allows the film’s tone to follow it into jokey territory with Dunn’s principal who’s also a secret UFC fan and Brendan’s fawning students. This is all trite sports flick predictability, as is the role of Tess who functions in the tired role of momentary inhibitor of inevitable action. Even within those constraints, Edgerton finds small grace notes that keep his part of the film from a stall between scenes of Tommy and Paddy. He’ll surprise and astonish the viewer with a particular delivery or intonation that has a twinge of quavery vulnerability, befitting a film about the unreconstructed children within the Conlon brothers in need of resolving their painful upbringings.
Edgerton needs to elevate his part of the film because it’s well-worn; Tommy’s exists in a freshly-trod arena. Hardy is giving a peak physical performance, freakishly muscled and permanently greasy. His fighting strategy is animalistic brute force, such that his bouts are often over after a few seconds. There’s no joy for him in the training or the sport. This is all a means to an end. The reasons for his single-mindedness and his brittle anger are rooted in military service, another potentially cheap avenue that O’Connor morphs into the kind of action that resists the kind of easily classified heroics embodied by displays of shallow military support at sporting events. Emotionally, Tommy is resentful of anyone who hurt him or is perceived to have hurt him, and he slices them to pieces with the fewest words possible. The dynamic between him and Brendan is an interesting one, where Brendan wants to understand Tommy but the fact of his ignorance to Tommy’s harrowing experiences makes Tommy resentful and resistant.
Juxtaposed against the visceral nature of ultimate fighting is the thorny emotional work the characters have to muddle through, and the way it plays out is as explosive as a kick to the face. Nolte’s Paddy, initially gravelly and contrite and pathetic, goes huge in a showpiece scene involving a bottle of whisky, a hotel room, and Moby Dick. That’s preceded by a brutal bludgeoning Tommy gives him, all while reclining at a slot machine in a dismissive pose. Tommy and Brendan share a beachside confrontation that crackles with pent-up regret and anger. The film wastes a lot of time in Brendan’s quotidian world, and the official organs of the UFC become a serious crutch, vocalizing plot and character development as commentary and repeatedly making grandiose pronouncements that reek of product placement. All that’s forgotten in Warrior’s inevitable climax that smashes together the physical and the emotional as Tommy and Brendan face off in the ring. As many fight-centric sports films have done before, Warrior leaves the viewer in an intimate and vulnerable space despite the public grandeur of the setting, and it does it as effectively as its genre comrades. B-