1. "Warrior" wants to be a great sports movie so badly, so desperately, that it loses touch with what I suspect it was supposed to be about all along. Theoretically speaking, everything you could possibly want from an inspirational-but-grounded sports movie is here: Brooding themes of brotherhood, redemption and guilt; a scrappy underdog beating the odds; the indestructible, Ivan Drago-like combatant who looms for our heroes (they've even made him Russian here, despite the fact that he's played by U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist Kurt Angle); and of course the Big Competition at the end, in which all the plotlines are wrapped up in a single-elimination tournament. A lot of this works; director Gavin O'Connor ("Miracle") knows his sports movie tropes well, and how to hit them to maximize their impact. But by focusing too much on the sports movie conventions and not enough on the movie itself, it doesn't punch us in the gut at the end the way it should. It's a lot of impressively empty theater.
2. The opening scenes are extremely promising. We open with Paddy Conlon (played by Nick Nolte, particularly gravelly, even for him), a recovering alcoholic who spends his lonely nights listening to audiotapes of "Moby Dick" in his empty apartment. He comes home one night to be confronted by his youngest son Tommy, who left Paddy with his mother 14 years earlier and has returned to Pittsburgh for unknown reasons. Nolte's particularly effective here at showing a man who has destroyed his life and knows he deserves to be vilified for it ... but can't stop it from hurting anyway. Later, we meet Paddy's other son Brendan, a former UFC fighter who now teaches high school physics (and also hates his father), who learns the bank is going to foreclose on his family's home and decides to return to the ring to pay the bills. We watch these three men circle each other, how they deal with their devastated past in different ways, three open wounds whose aggression and pain can only be expressed in the steel cage of mixed martial arts. (Paddy was the boys' trainer.) My hopes were high. If you're going to try to make a movie to legitimize MMA as a sport worthy of its own movie (something O'Connor's obviously trying to do, something I myself find a worthwhile effort), having brothers dealing with their childhood being destroyed by an alcoholic trainer father seems a pretty smart way to do it.
3. It's about now that that sports movie starts getting in the way of the real movie. While our story is unfolding, we start receiving news reports about Sparta, a massive winner-take-all MMA tournament held by a billionaire hedge fund manager who just wants "to find out who the toughest guy in the world is." (This manager is played by O'Connor himself, in the first hint of the turn the movie's about to take.) Sparta itself has nothing to do with our main character's stories, but the movie keeps being pulled by the gravitational force of The Big Competition, away from these three people we've started to care about and more toward Stirring Dramatic Scenes Of Combat. Next thing you know, Tommy isn't just a kid who tried to save his mom from his alcoholic dad; he's a heroic war vet who went AWOL after his best friend in the Marines was killed. Brendan isn't just a teacher dad with money problems; suddenly his daughter has heart disease too. The movie would have been a lot more effective if it had kept the fighters' problems rooted in the real world, rather than throwing artificial obstacles in their way to up the drama. It would be as if it turned out Coach Norman Dale had to win the state tournament or the local orphanage would have been closed.
4. The film still mostly works, if just because of O'Connor's obvious affection for sports movie cliches (he has an affinity for extreme closeups of fighters' sweaty, blooded, anguished-but-proud faces that does the trick every time) and, mostly, universally excellent performances. Edgerton has the toughest role -- he's the traditional underdog hero -- but he manages to show us the wounded pride, and the lust for violence, behind the placid family man. Nolte is better at the beginning, as a man almost howling with regret, than he is at the end, when he's basically just an old-man-in-a-old-man-hat reaction shot. But the movie is stolen by Hardy, who has little dialogue but an overwhelming physical presence and a festering pain that keeps bubbling up before he cage-slams it back down. There's something almost primal about Hardy's performance, conjuring up those early days of Mike Tyson, even; you get the sense that this pulsating hunk of meat is the baddest man on the planet, and it's killing him. He's mesmerizing.
5. The Big Competition at the end is undeniably exciting -- Angle, who doesn't say a word the whole film, is a perfect Impregnable Fortress Impregnated -- and the fight scenes are shot in a way that makes sense whether you're an MMA fan or not. (Brendan is an arm-bar specialist and Tommy a knockout artist, which MMA fans will understand.) But interspersed into the tournament are the culminations of the Conlon family stories, and what was once so promising turns into a distraction. To make sure the Big Competition played out exactly the way O'Connor wanted it to, he compromises and softens some of the rawer edges of the initial story. It's possible by the stirring conclusion, you won't care. But I did, and you should. "Warrior" is a well-done sports movie, but as it ends, you can't help but wish it remembered its quieter, more human early moments and followed those to their end instead of letting an MMA tournament just resolve them all. The tournament could have worked even better had it been the logical conclusion of the Conlan story, rather than just the way the movie they're all in ends. The punches always seem that much harder when you understand just why they hurt.