How ironically fitting that a story of dark horse Mixed Martial Arts fighters should be a dark horse film. The theatric tension was unprecedented, all expectations having been dashed against a rock wall of spectacle.

“Warrior”

At Quality 16 and Rave
Lionsgate

It didn’t start that way, though. As the opening scenes rolled by, the crowd chuckled at a mélange of familiar sights and sounds — unforgiving close-ups of the old, washed-up trainer and his bitter children; the rattling of pill bottles and swishing of malt liquor; the financial problems and the championship fight that promises to solve them all. But as “Warrior” sets aside its clichéd framework and gets down to the nitty-gritty, the film’s tightened grip on the audience is a reminder of what Paul Simon must’ve meant by “the sound of silence.”

The triumph of “Warrior” is in its seamless fusion of all the gaudy elements of past blockbusters with highbrow literature, mythology and the most honest, down-to-earth characters you could ever hope to see. Former alcoholic and estranged father Paddy Conlin (Nick Nolte, “Arthur”) and his obsession with the audiobook of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” add a powerful undercurrent that carries us through the entire movie, reminding us that, as a drunken Paddy so aptly puts it, “We are all lost.”

The rest of the characters and their unique struggles further address this theme. Tom Conlin (Tom Hardy, “Inception”) struggles with a checkered past and the loss of his Marine comrade. Tom’s brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton, “Smokin’ Aces”) faces the foreclosure of his home and is forced to juggle his time between a day job as a high school physics teacher and nights of MMA fighting in strip club parking lots. These goals and conflicts all coalesce when a Wall Street banker leaves his job and throws a five million dollar purse into the cage to organize “Sparta,” an elimination match the likes of which the MMA world has never seen.

Nolte’s a sure stand-in for Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” Hardy looks like Rocky Balboa’s secret lovechild and brother Brendan’s mortgage deficits and job troubles reek of every tale of drug addiction and downtrodden sportsmen, artists, etc. to come down the pike since the first Shakespearean tragedy. It’s hard not to squirm at how much you’re investing in characters you’ve already seen so many times already. What makes “Warrior” so special in spite of its borrowed elements?

You invest in the characters because — like the elusive human condition represented by Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale — there’s something you can’t quite put your finger on. Somehow, all these ill-fitting pieces have formed a new picture. The level of candidness here is beyond words, and presented with such innocence it makes even the most subtle art house tragedies seem too deliberate. Not to mention an abrupt introduction to MMA 101, packed with as much brazen, realistic violence as a PG-13 rating could ever allow.

Captain Ahab may have met his match with “Moby Dick,” but don’t let the gaudy veneer of cage fighting grandiosity scare you away: “Warrior” is a whale worth chasing.

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