"Warrior," which is being promoted as another "Rocky," begins promisingly – that is to say, it doesn't seem like another "Rocky."
Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy), a mumbly, muscle-bound prodigal son, makes a surprise visit home to the father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), he hasn't seen in 14 years. A recovering alcoholic whose brutality drove away his entire family, Paddy wants to make it up to his son. Tommy still seethes with resentment but he wants to train for Sparta, a mixed martial arts event with a $5 million purse. He remembers that back in the day there was no better fighting coach than Paddy.
It turns out there's another son, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Tommy's older brother, who has been estranged from both Tommy and Paddy. There's a lot of estrangement in "Warrior." If there wasn't, there wouldn't be all that reconciliation later on.
Brendan is a high school physics teacher and former fighter who can't make enough to hold onto his house, so he, too, decides to enter Sparta. You can see where this is going.
I was hoping for a while that "Warrior" would be the kind of movie that undercuts its own conventions. The opening sequences between Tommy and Paddy have a gritty, surly realism, and, mumbly as they are, they're well written by director Gavin O'Connor and his coscreenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman. But no – this turns into the kind of movie that confirms our expectations instead of confounding them.
This predictability has its pleasures – up to a point. "Warrior" passes that point around the halfway mark, when Tommy's checkered past as an Iraq war veteran comes to the fore and Tommy and Brendan cross swords and Paddy, who has stayed sober for a thousand days, suddenly ... do I need to say?
O'Connor films the fight scenes, and the fight training scenes leading up to them, with the requisite oomph. He also works well with the actors, although Hardy's Brandoesque mannerisms might have been toned down. It wasn't a masterstroke to have Paddy periodically listen to "Moby-Dick" on his earphones – are we supposed to think that he's Ahab or the white whale? – but Nolte, against all odds, turns this walking stereotype into a living, breathing man. He effectively underplays Paddy's brawly side, his need for remorse, his shame.
The filmmakers have no such qualms. "Warrior" becomes increasingly shameless until, by the end, with the big fights fought, we are clearly meant to rise as one and applaud the indomitability of the human spirit. But the only indomitable thing about "Warrior" are its clichés. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language, and thematic material.)