Gavin O’Conner’s Warrior is the greatest sports movie ever made.
I want to get this out of the way because I go a little bit nutty when I see Happy Gilmore and Dodgeball — funny enough, but still — make Vulture’s Top 50 Sports Movies list … a list that failed to include Warrior, for reasons we can only speculate. Whatever the cause, I would urge you never to trust any Greatest Sports Movies discussion where Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior doesn’t, at minimum, dominate the conversation.
Let’s be charitable, though: Maybe they left it off because Warrior is a war film first and foremost, not a sports film. A war of coagulated blood between sons and fathers, and sons and sons. We have the suspicion that most of the really devastating physical damage in Warrior happened many years before the actual cage-fighting in the picture, back when Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) was an abusive patriarch and drunk. He beat a healthy clot into his family, causing a blockage that traditional methods of self-medication could never solve. In Gavin O’Connor’s universe, a family — even the wreckage of one — still has a gravitational pull. Much like prescription opiates or a bottle of stiff Irish whiskey can be magnetic poles slowly tugging at the iron diligence of sobriety, family has an attraction beyond our power to repudiate. For what’s left of the Conlon family, the draw is to do battle because some wounds simply won’t heal without first wounding another.
The Conlon brothers learned two different styles of violence from their father. Brendan (Joel Edgerton) learned to turn the superior strength and ferocity of his opponent against themselves, and once exhausted, to then smother them in his coils. Tommy (Tom Hardy) learned to be a storm, hurling everything into a man till that man no longer posed a threat. The only sport that allows this level of diplomatic variety is mixed martial arts.
The Conlon boys’ tactical approaches vary by design, illuminating their contrasting philosophies. Tommy just punishes anything in front of him. Brendan, on the other hand, allows people into his life, wearing them down until he finally wins or loses the encounter. People like Brendan simply wrestle with life’s challenges. Brendan’s problems are mostly external — he needs money to stave off foreclosure — while Tommy’s are radically internal. Tom Hardy carries Tommy with the ferocious intensity of a wounded lion, something you dare not approach, even to feed. One look at the mountain range of his impressive trapezius muscle and you understand that this is a man already comfortable with carrying an extraordinary amount of weight on his shoulders.
(The physicality lends rare weight to the picture; so few actors have that kind of gravity anymore. Tom Hardy may only be 5’9”, but he looks like six tons of man. Anchored. Dense. Utterly unfuckwithable. Edgerton’s Brendan Conlon is more affable and approachable, but this litheness is also part of his fighter’s repertoire, so be forewarned.)
The Spartan tournament that the Conlons are training for is key to the narrative, of course; it is the first time in Warrior that the two brothers lay hands on each other in decades. We get the feeling that all avenues of physical affection came by way of their mother, dead from cancer now for many years. (“So, you found God, huh? That’s awesome. See, Mom kept calling out for him but he wasn’t around. I guess Jesus was down at the mill forgiving all the drunks. Who knew?”) Hugs were replaced with ducking their father’s punches and grappling, and so these two guys duck punches and grapple as their means of making a living.
As a brief aside, it is indeed odd that in the 27-year history of mixed martial arts, there has only been one major Hollywood production made about the sport. There have been at least 20 different movies concerning boxing since the UFC become the dominant martial sport in American life, yet there’s only ever been one Warrior. And maybe there only needs to be but one model in this subgenre, because Warrior absolutely broke the mold in 2011. Gavin O’Connor’s film is a tough, tough act to follow.
Fight films capture the flux of human spirit and endurance better than any other sport in the genre. If the director does his job, we become fused with the fighter onscreen, we become his will to continue, we physically respond when he takes any punishment, when he falls or when he rallies. But Warrior is a different brand of fight film altogether. Our allegiances are fiercely divided between two brothers. One who is nigh unstoppable, and the other the perennial underdog, clawing his way through fight after fight, beating after beating. So, while most fights in cinema are fueled by exhilaration and a healthy dose of triumph over adversity — Avildsen’s Rocky is a terrific example of this formula done well — Warrior is filled with emotional exhaustion and anxiety. Gavin O’Connor, ever the poet jock, takes a much more schizophrenic route than the typical boxing feature. He splits our affections and affiliations between combatants. Telling multiple converging storylines with only a single outcome: Defeat for one means victory for the other. While the father who created this genetic melee simply must watch as we do, trying not to take sides yet speculating if there’s any resolution to this mess that we will find at all gratifying. By its very nature, Warrior is Pyrrhic and yet no less thrilling, no less satisfying.
It’s at this point in the finale of the movie we grasp that Warrior is about the power of submission. Absolution. Accountability. And finally, a different standard of victory altogether. One that actually means more than a cash purse or a championship belt. Winning is secondary to the promises made in the final act. It is the battle — the settling of accounts — that matters here.
Unlike most films in its ilk, Warrior tackles obstacles everyone can relate to. The serialized sensationalism of Hollywood’s propaganda department has been drowned out for a deliberate confrontation with issues we all understand. Divorce. Addiction. Abuse. Disease. Abandonment. Foreclosure. These are common social ills in the American family. Warrior doesn’t propose to solve them once and for all with bloviating tirades and grand, aristocratic gestures; it simply acknowledges that they touch many of our lives, often with lasting results. They leave broken people in their wake — but broken people, like broken bones, can be reset. In that respect, Warrior is at least amiable. It’s an optimistic film, cleverly written so that the arena of sport doubles as a triage unit for mending old wounds, and re-stitching familial tears. It is about fixing what felt permanently irreparable.
While most of the sports films in the last decade were cynical and/or somber — Foxcatcher; Southpaw; I, Tonya — only Ryan Coogler’s Creed movies and O’Conner’s Warrior openly embraced family as the ultimate solution to the woes of life. For the characters of these films, at least, there are simply no alternatives. You stand together, or you struggle alone. The Conlon brothers enter the cage as damaged children; they leave as men, as brothers. The true victors are those of us so emotionally hijacked by this film’s touching finale that we can’t help but be rejuvenated with hope. For Warrior is hopeful above all else: Family is all we have and all we’ll ever have. It’s worth fighting for.
Pedro Schwarzenegger is a true Northman. A savage man in a savage place and time. His taste in cinema? Savage. And yet he does all his writing on an iPhone, like some kind of candy-ass millennial.