Critics love to bemoan the high concept Hollywood production, those movies with an easily comprehended hook that seems ready-made for the pitch meeting. Their disgust is often justifiable. After all, these are usually safe, creatively bankrupt cliché fests, the scourge of the corporately-run studios.

At first glance, Warrior — one-part Cain and Abel, one part Rocky and one part a blatant cash-in on the Mixed Martial Arts phenomenon — appears to be just such a flick.

But when it comes to a picture’s most basic purpose — entertaining its audience — an easily definable premise doesn’t necessarily spell doom. When the commonplace is done well, with real feeling and strong characterizations, it can still seem fresh.

Director Gavin O’Connor, who achieved that effect with his 1980 Winter Olympics hockey drama Miracle, does it again here. The premise is familiar — estranged blue collar brothers (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) hash out their differences against the backdrop of an athletic competition (MMA tournament). The passion imbued in the storytelling and the performances, however, is not.

To recognize the fine film O’Connor has put together, one must look past the training montage, the gruesome octagon combat and the assembly line narrative machinery.

The quality can be found instead in the authenticity of the hardscrabble Pittsburgh vision, manifest in decaying gyms, wheezy Rust Belt streets and small suburban homes. You’ll find it in the strong, three-dimensional characters composed by O’Connor and co-screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorman. It’s in the ease with which O’Connor keeps things fresh and vibrant, modulating the tricky balance of rousing sports movie and dark family tragedy.

Most of all, Warrior is made by its leads (with a healthy assist from Nick Nolte as their alcoholic dad). There are extraordinary degrees of emotion and intelligence to be found in every word spoken by Hardy (Bronson) and Edgerton (Animal Kingdom). They are present in the characters’ every gesture and other physical mannerism, as the actors incorporate intensely realized senses of who these men are and what drives them to fight.

Both Brendan (Edgerton) and Tommy (Hardy) are simultaneously shut down by the turmoil of a rough past and begging, pleading for a way to confront their open wounds. Edgerton — whose Brendan is a retired fighter, a science teacher and the father of two young girls — effortlessly molds the vulnerability that leads the character back to MMA with an efficient killer’s drive to win the tournament. Hardy’s performance trades on the barely-controlled rage that consumes Tommy, an ex-Marine, and the great, volcanic sadness that informs it.

The stars give A-list performances in what’s otherwise a solid B-grade picture, elevating all that goes on between the clichés into a realm of grand human truth. While the MMA/sports movie angle is probably what got Warrior made, it’s the personal drama that makes it stick.

The Upside: This is a sharp, compelling drama with terrific performances; so terrific, that they’re almost too good for it.

The Downside: There are a lot of clichés.

On the Side: I really can’t recommend enough that you check out some of the earlier movies of Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy. These are great actors, and they’ll be around for a long time.

Grade: B


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