I’ll admit, when I first saw the trailer for this one a few months back, I instantly wrote it off. Sure, I like Tom Hardy, and am a casual fan of MMA, but as of yet have been thoroughly unimpressed by attempts to bring that sport over into the movie world (seriously, have you TRIED watching Never Back Down?), and this just looked another overly-clichéd sports movie. Don’t we already have enough of those about boxing?

My interest only started to rise during the last couple weeks, as strong buzz began to build and I heard pretty much nothing but praise for the film. But that creates another problem – would it truly be the good movie everyone was saying, or would I now be let down by unrealistically heightened expectations?

Thankfully, Warrior really IS that good, which is especially impressive given that it is also just as cliched as I initially feared. The movie follows the soon-to-intersect paths of two MMA-fighter brothers who haven’t spoken or seen each other in years. One, played by Hardy, is a former marine with a secret, who asks his recovering-alcoholic father (Nick Nolte, in an awesome performance) to train him even as he tells him he wants nothing else to do with him. The other, played by Joel Edgerton, has given up fighting for a life as husband, father, and high school teacher, but when the bank threatens foreclosure on his house, he has no choice but to step back into the fighting world to make some quick dough.

The two both end up in a big-time 16-man MMA tournament in Atlantic City, with a grand prize of $5 million. The tournament is supposed to consist of the top middleweights in the world, and if this was a true story I’m fairly certain there’s no way these two would actually be included, even under the flimsy circumstances the movie provides (Hardy becomes a YouTube sensation after footage of him knocking out a sparring partner hits the web, and Edgerton is a last-minute replacement for a more-worthy but injured competitor).

But, hey, this is just one of those “only in the movies” things that you’re just asked to accept while watching it. The movie is full of ’em, really. Like I said, this is pretty much Cliché City, with almost no standard fighting movie formulas left untapped. I mean, even if the trailer didn’t already give away that the two brothers make it to the tournament finals for an epic showdown, you’d be a real idiot if you didn’t see that coming the whole time. Even more egregiously, the movie falls into the all-time fight film cliché, depicting EVERY bout as an insanely exciting slug-fest. Let me tell you, I’ve watched enough MMA to know that the majority of fights are a lot more boring than those shown here. But I guess 15 minutes of guys in their underwear just rolling around and laying on-top of each other wouldn’t be quite as dramatic.

What the movie reminds you, though, is that the sort of clichés it exploits have become clichés for a reason – because, when done well, they still always work. And that’s definitely the case here. Sure, you can accuse the movie of being somewhat manipulative in its excessive heartstring-pulling, but when you have fantastic actors breathing wonderful life into the characters, you still find yourself sucked in despite yourself. And this movie certainly has wonderful performances, with both Hardy and Edgerton bringing a level of depth and humanity to their roles that far outshines the somewhat predictable story. The real standout, though, is Nolte, an actor who hasn’t done much for me in years, but here brings such a vivid sadness to his character’s desperate attempt to be forgiven and reconnect with both his sons that you can’t help but be moved. If the Academy Awards were completely up to me, and I had to choose tomorrow, I’d have a REALLY hard time picking between Nolte and Albert Brooks in Drive for Best Supporting Actor.

So yes, thanks to excellent actors and strong filmmaking, Warrior rises above its well-worn nature and still delivers a compelling, moving tale that should strike a chord with any sports movie fan, or just anyone who enjoys a really good family story. Even if you can see the match-up coming from a mile away, I can’t imagine anyone watching this and NOT being emotionally invested in it enough by the end to really want to see how it all turns out. I’ve seen dozens of movies like Warrior, but this is one of the better-made and more entertaining ones, and that’s enough for me.

Plus, how can any movie with both Kurt Angle AND Kevin Dunn not be worth a recommendation?

This review was originally posted at Trevor Likes Movies on September 21st, 2011.