As an American mixed-martial-arts fighter named Tommy Riordan, the Englishman Tom Hardy is an extra-strength fire extinguisher. He’s been given a parlor-load of tattoos and mumbles in an accent that veers from Wu-Tang Clan to a sweaty unintelligibility best described as “early-onset Wahlberg.’’ He’s playing a kind of shut-down former wrestler turned Marine who somehow makes it back to Pittsburgh (another accent) and the father he hates (Nick Nolte), then into the caged ring where a date with his estranged brother, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton, an Australian), awaits.
This is bench-press melodrama, and it’s as manipulative as anything Bette Davis or Jane Wyman ever starred in. You can’t abide the shamelessness of any of it. Not the circumstances that drove the family apart then reunite them 14 years later. Not the news that Brendan’s suburban Philadelphia house is about to be foreclosed. Not the notion that any sports journalist or mixed-martial-arts blogger would have figured out, well in advance of the movie’s climactic final quarter, that Tommy and Brendan are, in fact, related. Oh, right. They have different last names!
All the director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor does is apply old boxing-film tricks to what is, for the movies, a new sport. Then he doubles them. There are training montages, drunken rages, and The Wife Who Can’t Stand the Sport Until She Does (Jennifer Morrison). This movie does not have one goodly underdog. It has two. Brendan teaches high school physics and, for extra money, sneaks off to fight. In Iraq, Tommy rescued a couple of Marines by ripping the door off of a tank and went AWOL without being properly honored - or disciplined.
O’Connor also made “Miracle,’’ a criminally effective Disney movie about the 1980 USA-Russia ice hockey Olympics semifinal. It was another exercise in sports-world shamelessness that happened to bring out the best in Coach Kurt Russell. It also happened to be more or less true. “Warrior’’ is so ridiculous that when, say, the 16-man Atlantic City tournament (“The War on the Shore’’) manages to keep Tommy and Brendan away from each other until the final round, I said, “Well, that had to be how it happened. It had to be true.’’ What screenwriter would have the effrontery to do that and make Brendan a broke schoolteacher and Tommy a pacifist war hero on top of everything else? The only reason O’Connor calls this movie “Warrior’’ is because he’d already used “Miracle.’’
Yet it almost doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. By the time the shore goes to war, you’re kind of hooked. The fight sequences, which are brutal and long, work unto themselves. You do wish this movie, which at 140 minutes is long to begin with, had managed to establish exactly what happened between these brothers, their alcoholic, ex-boxer father, and dearly departed mother. You think that because the first half feels like the setup for the second, the movie needs better psychological groundwork. But O’ Connor appears to know that he’s not Eugene O’Neill. Nor is he David O. Russell, who managed to turn “The Fighter’’ into Greek comedy.
You want some kind of style to take the movie over the top and keep it there, like an impossible but handsome moment where the brothers run into each other on the beach just beyond the boardwalk lit by the casinos. It’s a crisp-looking encounter that’s straight out of Michael Mann. You want to see Hardy and Nolte do some capital-A acting. Nolte has one deranged scene in a hotel bathrobe, slippers, and a Walkman that plays an audio-book of “Moby-Dick.’’ It’s embarrassing to yearn for a moment like that from Nolte, but you don’t hire him to just sit in an armchair, either.
Hardy, who was put to sleek use in “Inception,’’ gives a performance as similarly bodied as the greatish one he gave in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson,’’ but this time he mutes the volume on his charisma. The character comes to life in the ring - or, to be precise, when, after beating his opponents unconscious, he’s storming out of it. But that strategy just reminds you how empty and passive the first hour is. An actor as exciting as Hardy should be barreling through entire movies, especially a factory item like this.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.