Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘Warrior’: Cain Faces Abel in a Mixed Martial Arts Bout

August 16, 2020 Updated: August 16, 2020

PG-13 | | Action, Drama, Sport | 9 September 2011 (USA)

Tales of fathers versus sons and brother-against-brother conflicts contain ingredients that unfailingly make grown men cry. “Warrior” will make tough guys bawl (watching alone, at home, of course).

“Warrior” is the archetypal story of how parental divorce, the early death of the mother, and a distant (or violent) father wreak havoc on the bond between brothers, uniting them only in their hatred of the father and deep resentment of each other.

two men at diner table in "Warrior"
Tom Hardy (L) and Nick Nolte play father and son in “Warrior.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Lionsgate)

“Warrior” is secondarily a movie about the world’s fastest growing sport: mixed martial arts (MMA), which, outside of the actual military, is the modern-day world of warriors. It’s a calling; these men (and as of March 28, 1997—women) absolutely love what they do. If you like the fight game, “Warrior” will have you hollering and jumping out of your seat.

A Quick History of MMA and Modern Fighting

In the 1960s, there was no kicking of another person in a fight. That was for girly-men. In the early 1970s, along came Bruce Lee, whose spectacular, high roundhouse and spinning back-kicks were high-tech weaponry, and kicking was suddenly cool.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) debuted in the early 1990s, pitting various martial art styles against each other; karate went up against wrestling, kung fu versus muay thai, judo versus boxing, and so on. When it all shook out, Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ) dominated with impunity.

Epoch Times Photo
A photo not to be taken seriously.

The UFC then started sorting fighters, per their style, into either the striking camp or the grappling camp, and it became clear that anyone mastering both would have no peer. Standup fighters (strikers) quickly swarmed to get a good ground (grappling) game, and vice versa.

Rapidly, fighters assimilated boxing and karate for punching and kicking, muay thai for elbows and knees, wrestling and judo for takedowns, and jiujitsu for chokes, cranks, and joint-locks.

Jiujitsu is also called “submission fighting.” The fighter being strangled, neck-cranked, or joint-locked is forced to submit, or “tap out” (tap the mat, the opposing fighter, or quit verbally), or risks breaking bones or losing consciousness—colorfully known as “tap, snap, or nap.”

MMA fighter in "Warrior"
Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) in “Warrior.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Lionsgate)

The Story

There are two brothers. One, Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy), is a former Marine with a tragic secret; the other, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), is a high-school physics teacher and family man.

father and daughter at birthday party in "Warrior"
Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) in “Warrior.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Lionsgate)

Tommy enlists the father he hates (Nick Nolte), but who trained him to great victories in wrestling as a youth, to train him again for Sparta, a fictitious MMA worldwide event with a winner’s purse in the millions.

boxing coach and fighter in "Warrior"
Tom Hardy (L) and Nick Nolte in “Warrior.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Lionsgate)

Brendan, facing foreclosure on his house and wanting to keep his family from homelessness, goes back to moonlighting—forbidden by his wife, Tess (charismatically played by Jennifer Morrison)—taking illegal MMA fights for money. This eventually puts Sparta in his sights, thus setting the brothers on an inevitable collision course.

blond woman in brown leather jacket in "Warrior"
Tess Conlon (Jennifer Morrison) in “Warrior.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Lionsgate)

Two siblings fighting each other in the world’s top MMA venue? An overly convenient deus ex machina script ploy? It could happen. Think: the Williams sisters at Wimbledon. Also the “Manning Bowl”: NFL quarterback (Indianapolis Colts) Peyton Manning versus younger brother (N.Y. Giants) Eli Manning.

It could have happened in the actual UFC with brothers Nick and Nate Diaz, except that they respect each other too much to beat each other half to death. The UFC draws such a massive crowd because it’s the closest human beings can come to killing each other, without actually killing each other.

movie poster in "Warrior"
Tom Hardy (L) and Joel Edgerton in the poster for “Warrior.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Lionsgate)

While the two lead actors in “Warrior” would get quickly pulverized in a pro (or even amateur) MMA cage fight, despite their black belts, they are professional chameleons. They built muscle, trained like fiends; one’s a Brit, the other’s an Aussie—and they both come off as 100 percent all-American.

two fighters and referee in "Warrior"
(L–R) Tom Hardy, Anthony Tambakis, and Joel Edgerton in “Warrior.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Lionsgate)

Nick Nolte won an Oscar nomination for this performance, with good cause. It’s a role that’s directly in his power alley of grizzled ex-powerhouses—arguably easy for him. But one of the definitions of acting is being private in public, and Nolte’s courage to be this vulnerable, along with the natural raw power of his personality, is jaw-dropping.

father and son talk in "Warrior"
Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton, L) and Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) in “Warrior.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Lionsgate)

As mentioned, being a warrior is a calling for some men and women. Traditionally, the warrior spirit takes joy in hardship and pride in the forbearance of pain. It lauds commitment, fearlessness, honor, integrity, accountability, and, yes, mercy. All men (and many women nowadays) have an inner warrior, which loves these things.

The shadow side of the warrior is the stronghold of rage, hatred, bullying, jealousy, competitiveness, domination, bragging, ruthlessness, wall-to-wall tattoos, and bloodlust. Unfortunately, men also love these things.

three men in cage-fighting octagon in "Warrior"
(L–R) Daniel Stevens, Tom Hardy, and Anthony Tambakis in “Warrior.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Lionsgate)

Ex-Marine Tommy embodies more of the shadow warrior; Brendan is the opposite, training to Beethoven in order to cultivate his inner ability to remain emotionally calm and unmoved. This naturally sets up a powerful dissonance, which calls for a powerful resolution.

high school students watching MMA fight in "Warrior"
High School students cheering on their teacher, Brendan Conlon (“Mr. C.”), in “Warrior.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Lionsgate)

“Warrior” is an emotional roller coaster, an extremely fun sports movie, and it delivers dissonance and resolution on a grand scale. When all is said and done, the menfolk will experience catharsis on par with a good Superbowl win. And you don’t even have to wait till January.

Actually, you might need to wait a couple of Januarys due to the pandemic. The UFC, however, can’t be stopped by any virus; they’ve come up with a “Fight Island.” No crowds. Just Fights. After watching “Warrior,” you might end up a UFC fan too.

two brothers after MMA fight in "Warrior"
Tom Hardy (L) and Joel Edgerton in “Warrior.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Lionsgate)

Director: Gavin O’Connor
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Nick Nolte
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 9, 2011
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch