Tom Hardy's brilliance had already brought him a faithful following in his native England by the time director Christopher Nolan cast him as the delightfully deceitful forgery expert in “Inception,” last summer’s brainy blockbuster. Expect Hardy’s American fan club to boom after moviegoers get a look at him in “Warrior,” a terrific dysfunctional family tale that combines astonishingly vivid mixed martial arts sequences with a fairly spectacular fireworks show in the dramatics department.
Like last year's “The Fighter” (to which it will inevitably be compared), “Warrior” serves up a solid rebuttal to anyone who would argue that a “fight movie” can’t be intelligent, impressively acted and multi-faceted.
“Warrior” may not have the acidic humor or the strong female characters that graced “The Fighter,” but director Gavin O'Connor, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorman, has done a thoroughly impressive job of combining an engrossing story with dynamic action. When Hardy and co-star Joel Edgerton enter the ring, slugging and slamming opponents, you’ll feel every body blow, and yet the movie’s examination of a Pittsburgh clan devastated by acrimonious feelings, alcoholism and old wounds that never healed is equally powerful.
“Warrior” follows the Reardons, patriarch Paddy (Nick Nolte) and his estranged sons, Tommy (Hardy) and Brendan (Edgerton). Once an abusive drunk, Paddy wants to reconnect with his kids. He’s obsessed with righting old wrongs, which may be why he is absorbed by Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the elusive monster whale in “Moby Dick”; he listens to the audio version of the novel at every opportunity.
Paddy’s sudden embrace of his Catholic faith means little to the seemingly directionless Tommy, who has recently drifted back into town after getting out of the Army. “So you found God — that’s awesome, man,” Tommy cracks. “Mom kept calling out for him, but he was never around.” A born fighter who is smart enough to realize his skills could make him some serious money, Tommy warily lets down his guard and allows Paddy to become his trainer.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, Brendan, a Philadelphia high school science teacher with major money problems, has his own ambitions: He’s hoping to enter Sparta, a kind of mixed martial arts Grand Prix in Atlantic City. “You’ve got a better chance of starting a boy band,” his trainer, Frank (Frank Grillo), snorts.
Eventually, of course, all three Reardon men will end up at Sparta and no one will go home unscathed. In the ring, Brendan is the quiet storm with staying power and determination; Tommy is the tornado that descends without warning, tears up the town and then vanishes back into the sky. The brothers are equally different personalities although, as Tommy points out to Paddy, the only thing he and Brendan have in common is that “the pair of us have no use for you.”
Hardy, Edgerton and Nolte vigorously dig into this toxic dump of sour, hostile emotions and their exchanges are bruising. If you only know Hardy from his star-making turn in “Inception,” you may be surprised by his ability to bring out both the viciousness of Tommy and the deeply buried desperation in his soul. He’s magnetic, and Nolte, livelier and grittier than he’s been in years, matches him magnificently.
Opens Friday at Celebration Cinemas Lansing and NCG Eastwood Theatres.