Friday, February 10, 2012
Gavin O’Connor’s rousing, emotionally punishing film follows three damaged men. Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic, struggles to make amends with his estranged sons. Years ago Tommy (Tom Hardy), a star high school wrestler, moved to the West Coast with his mother to escape his father’s drunken rages. Meanwhile older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) married sweetheart Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and fled to Philadelphia where he teaches high school physics and bounces at a nightclub to help feed and clothe his three daughters. After his mother’s death Tommy returns to the Pittsburgh family home and persuades his despised father to train him for Sparta, a winner-take-all mixed martial arts tournament. Meanwhile Brendan, with his mortgage under water and no stranger to fighting for money, convinces trainer Frank Campana (Frank Grillo) to get him back into shape for the upcoming competition as well. While Brendan’s motive for this punishing pursuit is clear, Tommy’s is more enigmatic but no less compelling. The film’s second half, set in Atlantic City, chronicles the bruising battles leading to the championship round, the results of which will leave all but the most stone-hearted shaken. Credit screenwriters O’Connor & Anthony Tambakis & Cliff Dorfman with an unflinching portrayal of the world of mixed martial arts and a visceral yet humane portrait of its physically and psychologically pummeled central characters. Often the film’s most devastating blows come from words and not fists. Director O’Connor maintains a propulsive pace and elicits performances both raw and delicate from this exceptional cast. Nolte achieves a riveting restraint as the contrite, self-loathing patriarch barely holding himself together. Edgerton is terrific as a stable family man and dogged combatant willing to put his body on the line to save his home. However, the film belongs to the revelatory Hardy, who projects hurt and despair in his eyes while anger vibrates through his muscled, ape-like body. Succeeding both as a pugilist picture and perceptive family drama, this punch to the breadbasket of a film takes the breath away.