There are many crimes you could lodge against the enjoyably shameless mixed martial arts tearjerker Warrior, but the only one that matters is how it treats Nick Nolte. As Paddy, the ex-alkie father of ass-kickers Tom (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Nolte spends nearly every scene pleading for forgiveness from his sons, who want nothing to do with the man who broke a thousand promises. When Tom suddenly shows up on his doorstep, it’s training for a championship he wants; all paternal offerings will be ignored.
Even after promising viewers a gruff Nolte growling like Burgess Meredith, Warrior cruelly ends up putting the training scenes off-screen, content to keep him pathetic. Nolte overplays every scene, but he bottoms out when, having finally fallen off the wagon, he traipses about in a robe, screaming along to the climax of a Moby Dick audio book. If we’re lucky it’s the worst scene of the year.
That said, the rest of Warrior is fine cornpone, turning a current trend into a serious version of The Simpsons episode where Bart and Lisa compete in pee-wee hockey. As it happens, Brendan—a teacher, and therefore unable to provide for his family—has enlisted in the same fight as Tom. For this over-the-hill fighter to conquer his scary opponents, much less his own estranged brother, it will take a miracle—coincidentally the name of one of director Gavin O’Connor’s previous films.
O’Connor applies a thick layer of faux-grit to a sometimes gory script, abetted by two fine lead performances. While Aussie actor Edgerton (Animal Kingdom) is merely hugely likable, no melodrama has ever had an actor care less about being liked, by the characters or the audience, than Hardy. The thrilling should-be-megastar of Bronson—he also slyly stole Inception—Hardy is amusingly impregnable, shunning the press and storming out of fights after pummeling opponents in seconds flat. When Tom and Brendan finally get their big tete-a-tete, what should be corny is thrillingly unpredictable: two wildly different personalities failing to communicate. (“Why am I looking at pictures of people I don’t know?”, Tom quips when shown pictures of his nieces.) Together they’re enough to atone for a film that hasn’t humiliated Nolte this much since the movie Breakfast of Champions put him in a dress.