Warrior doesn't offer much in the way of a primer on mixed martial arts, if that's what you're looking for, but most sports movies really aren't about the inner workings of their sport, anyway. Warrior, like Rocky, uses fighting in the ring as a very obvious metaphor for other kinds of fights.
The question becomes: Is MMA reflecting the struggles of these characters' lives, or vice versa? Which fight came first?
Gavin O'Connor's gritty look at a family of brawlers, rather predictably, does not take place in an upper-class environment where everything is perfect. Instead, we get working-class Pittsburgh, and Tommy and Brendan Conlon (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton). Both were amateur wrestlers trained by their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), but that was before the family history got ugly.
Paddy was a drunk, and the boys' unseen mother reached a point where she could not take the violence any longer. She split for Seattle while her kids were still teenagers, with the older Brendan staying in Pittsburgh, and Tommy going west with her. Now it's however-many-years later, and Tommy turns up at his dad's house looking for a trainer. Despite his many shortcomings as a father, Paddy was always one hell of a trainer.
Down in Philadelphia, Brendan is training for the same lucrative MMA tournament that his brother is, although his reasons are a little clearer: A high school teacher overextended on his bills, Brendan needs the money. Of course, he's much older than the competition, hasn't fought professionally in years, and will probably be devoured once the tournament gets under way.
Despite its hokey and transparent machinations, Warrior never feels uninspired or wanting. It's easy to wonder why such a big tournament would feature two combatants nobody has ever heard of, and if Brendan, especially, could actually be trained and conditioned to win in such a short amount of time—but again, this is not a film about MMA fighting. That's just what makes a time-honored story more contemporary and presentable. Even allowing all of that, however, the time-honored story doesn't exactly fly off the page. It's movie-of-the-week stuff, albeit more rough-edged.
Without a great script, or even a pretty good one, Warrior is buoyed by an incredible amount of raw emotion: The film aches. It's in the measured maturity of Nick Nolte, who hasn't seen a part this good in a decade or more, and more emphatically in the otherworldly intensity of Tom Hardy. He's playing a beast, and Hardy's in-ring demeanor is fearsome, which should not surprise anyone who saw the young actor in Bronson a few years ago. In his more-dramatic scenes, Hardy appears to be channeling Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy from On the Waterfront, and how could that not be intentional? In any case, it's a blistering, wounded performance, top to bottom.
There are comparisons already to The Fighter, which also featured family drama and three-minute rounds. That film went on to win a couple of Oscars, which this won't, but the direction and the staging of the fights themselves are far superior in Warrior.
O'Connor is much more confident loading his film with these fighting interludes than was David O. Russell, and because O'Connor doesn't have as much dramatic firepower, these scenes help an average fight movie become a whole lot better.