Hollywood has begun the 2011 fall-winter slate of films with a huge bang! If you had asked me a couple of months ago, when WARRIOR’s trailer first came out, what my thoughts on this movie were, I would have unleashed a barrage of expletives on how horrible the film looked from concept to execution. I am not an MMA fan and in fact, I downright despise it. To me, its just a more violent, intense version of the WWF and I was never a fan of that either. WARRIOR reeked of a testosterone-fueled appeal to single-syllabled Neanderthals whose idea of a good movie is end-to-end explosions (plot optional). In short, I had no intention of even entertaining the idea of seeing this film. My first reevaluation of WARRIOR came when the first reviews started to pour in. To mine and probably everyone else’s astonishment, the film was actually generating overwhelming praise. Had this been a boxing movie, I wouldn’t even have thought twice about anyone liking WARRIOR considering the Hollywood pedigree of boxing movies (THE FIGHTER, ROCKY, CINDERELLA MAN, etc.). But this is a movie about MMA!! After what most critics said about this film, I don’t think I could have NOT seen WARRIOR and after seeing it, I am so glad I did. With the award-contenders just beginning to be released, WARRIOR already stands as my favorite film of 2011 so far. I know its way too early to crown the best film of the year, but as of today, its better than anything I have seen this year.

WARRIOR is about two estranged brothers (Joel Edgerton & Tom Hardy) who end up facing against each other in a huge MMA (mixed martial arts) tournament. Tom Hardy is a physics high school teacher who is struggling to make his home mortgage payments and now faces foreclosure. Joel Edgerton is an ex-Marine who is haunted by an incident that happened while he was in Iraq. Now back from the war, Edgerton seeks out his father (Nick Nolte), who is a recovering alcoholic. Due to his drinking, Nolte alienated his entire family, including his two sons. Edgerton left with his mother and took care of her until she died. This fact has embittered Edgerton toward his dad. He also harbors resentment toward his brother for not joining he and his mother when he had promised to do so. Hardy decides to rejoin the MMA circuit so that he can provide for his family and prevent foreclosure. Edgerton also gets back in the ring and he asks his father to be his trainer. Taking all these elements together, an emotional and suspenseful backdrop is created for the two brothers’ eventual meet-up at the tournament.

WARRIOR is not an original film by any means. Many may deride it for being clichéd, formulaic, and emotionally manipulative. To some degree, I agree. However, I don’t think its fair to judge a movie on whether or not it offers audiences something new and fresh. If a film can successfully transport you to whatever place it wants to take you and can generate the emotions and excitement it intends to create, it has done exactly what it is supposed to do. For 2 hours and 19 minutes, I was fully engrossed in the characters’ journeys, their relationships with one another, and their final outcomes. I was immediately invested emotionally in all the characters and never once was something amiss to take me out of the film. The MMA action sequences are brutal, fast-paced, and thrilling. I’ll admit that the film even managed to get me curious about the sport.

However, what really drives this film is the marvelous acting from Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte. These three actors pour out their souls and reassert the power of human drama in film. The most noteworthy performance in WARRIOR and a performance that I believe stands among his best career efforts is the one given by Nick Nolte. Watching him play the repentant father who repeatedly tries to regain his sons’ love is absolutely heartbreaking. Although you discover just how bad of a father he was, you immediately sympathize with Nolte’s character because you can see the sincerity in his face as he tries to mend his broken relationship with his family. I really hope that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences gets past its assumed bias against WARRIOR’s MMA subject and give recognition to Nolte’s powerhouse performance.

This was the first time I have seen Joel Edgerton. He received praise for his performance in last year’s ANIMAL KINGDOM, which is a film I keep promising myself to see. Edgerton plays the ex-Marine brother who is tormented by past demons from his stint in Iraq. Edgerton doesn’t receive as much screen time as Tom Hardy and that is unfortunate. Not to minimize Hardy’s accomplishment, but throughout the movie, we know little about Edgerton’s past. His character doesn’t say much, but when he does, his words are packed with so much anger and hostility that you’re left wanting to see more and to learn more about what this person is about. Edgerton gives an intense performance in this movie and he’s an unrelenting character who doesn’t give in to heart tugging entreaties from his brother or father.

Finally, we get to Tom Hardy. From what I hear, Hollywood is poising him to be the next big movie star in the same vein as Russell Crowe or Colin Farrell. I have no problem with that because based on his performance in INCEPTION, WARRIOR, and his anticipated turn as Bane in next year’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Hardy has earned that status. In WARRIOR, he’s the nice guy. He’s the family man who’s entered the ring in order to save his family from financial doom. You root for him because he’s the Rocky in this picture. He’s the underdog who’s too old and has never proven himself to be better than average. What’s more, he’s been suspended from his high school teaching job so fighting has now become his sole source of income. Hardy does a fine job in WARRIOR and his contrasting role as the cocky Brit in INCEPTION shows the wide range he possesses.

WARRIOR will remind you a lot of ROCKY. Both brothers are underdogs just like Rocky Balboa. There is even a scene where Edgerton is mockingly compared to Rocky. And like ROCKY, this film is also mostly set in Pennsylvania (but not in Philadelphia like ROCKY was). I think you would need to essentially be heartless to not be emotionally stirred by the film’s drama and not find yourself cheering for these characters. Our main characters are not simply looking for a win in the ring like ROCKY did. They are seeking to redeem themselves in each other’s eyes and its that extra dimension that adds so much depth to this story.

I don’t think anyone who sees WARRIOR will walk away not liking it. Some of those may dismiss the film as being formulaic, but they will still find it to be a rousing experience. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie where I seriously wanted to get up from my seat and cheer at the screen like a sports fan who’s just saw his team win a close game. WARRIOR has set a nice benchmark for the remainder of this season’s films and I can only hope that we will see more equally if not better caliber films during the coming months.