Fight film a champ: 'Warrior' succeeds in, out of the ring

Co-star Nick Nolte arrives at the premiere of “Warrior” in Los Angeles on Tuesday. “Warrior” opens in theaters Friday.

"Warrior," a drama about mixed-martial arts fighting, is about as subtle as a body slam.

It has two feuding brothers -- they make Cain and Abel seem as chummy as Yogi and Boo Boo -- taking it to the ring. It has a teary, formerly alcoholic dad/trainer. It has a boo-hiss Russian villain built as solid as the Kremlin. The movie's also about as manipulative as they come. "Warrior" reeks of sports-movie melodrama, and yet it works.

Tom Hardy ("Layer Cake," "Inception" ) is brooding Tom Conlon, a troubled war vet and pit bull of a man who returns home to Pittsburgh to train for mixed-martial arts matches with his former boxing-coach dad (Nick Nolte). But he's no prodigal son. Tom has neither forgiven his father nor his estranged brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton, "Animal Kingdom" ) for not being there when his mother was ill and dying. He hasn't spoken to his brother in years.

Brendan is a Philadelphia teacher who's about to have the home he shares with his wife (Jennifer Morrison) and two daughters foreclosed on. So he returns to his former career as a low-level MMA fighter for some extra cash.

Through a series of contrivances that strain credibility, the two put themselves on the path to meet in the Sparta, a big payday fight featuring the world's deadliest warriors, including the notorious Koba (Kurt Angle), a hulking Russian with fists like pile drivers. Of course, the brothers have to go up against each other.

"Warrior," written and directed by Gavin O'Connor ("Miracle"), who also plays a small part, is saved by a brutal sense of energy and strong performances from Edgerton and Hardy. Edgerton is convincing as a suburban dad and a fighter trying to reclaim past glories. One of the movie's most moving scenes takes place outside the ring, when Tom nearly wordlessly has to comfort his dad while he is having a breakdown.

Watching this, it's tough to believe that Brit Hardy and Aussie Edgerton aren't two working-class stiffs from Pennsylvania with hard-scrabble pasts and uncertain futures. "Warrior" is going to make both of them stars.

Similarly, while "Warrior" lacks the depth of "Raging Bull," the gold standard for films about the sweet science, its story of frayed fraternal and father-son relationships, set amid the bone-crushing world of mixed martial arts, probably will end up on those lists of favorite "guy" movies like "The Shawshank Redemption," "Fight Club" and "Rocky."

"Warrior" may enter the ring like a run-of-the-mill fighter with predictable moves, but it exits a knockout.