Remember when Kleenex used to market extra-large "man" tissue in the fake wood-grain cardboard box? I haven't seen that in the store in a long time. Everything is little boutique powder room-sized Puffs-y stuff now. Well, if you can still find those anywhere, bring them with you to this movie. Chances are you're going to need at least a couple.
Tommy (Tom Hardy) and big brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) are estranged siblings with an even more estranged father (Nick Nolte) and a dead mother. When they were boys, mom ran away from abusive alcoholic Nolte and took young, brooding, brawling Tommy with her. Brendan stayed behind for misguided Dad and loyalty and love of a high school sweetheart, resulting in a permanently broken family.
Complicating an already destroyed dynamic, both brothers are in desperate economic straits. Disillusioned Iraq War veteran Tommy needs money to help the widow of a combat buddy killed by friendly fire. Striving, good-hearted, physics teacher Brendan has a sick daughter, inadequate health insurance and an "upside-down" mortgage. Failed by their family and their country, all they know how to do is grunt along through life, struggle to survive and fight for cash in mixed martial arts bouts, where kicking is allowed but gloves aren't--the only metaphor this sport offers the movie beyond physical punches subbing for psychic ones.
Dad--1,000 days sober but still an uncomprehending annoyance--trains Tommy, who shuns him in all other aspects of his brutish life. And Brendan just shuns Dad period. Yet, in the movie's favor, no one shouts anyone down. No one gets involved in fakey therapeutic emotion reveals. And smartest of all, no one finds themselves on the tired Rocky 4 end of any rousing training montages, probably because this is a sport with no real past lore, nothing shared by the larger culture to evoke a mass emotional response. These are stoic guys and this is a stoic movie.
But not for long. When they're not brawling like Transformers and turning black and blue outside (and it will definitely remind you of those movies because in this sport you can't always tell where one fighter starts and the other ends) they're dropping hints about the pain they carry through life, like in one pivotal scene where Hardy helps Nolte in the only way he's ever known, caring for him while drunk.
Finally, a huge bout with an even huger $5 million prize pits the brothers in a battle that forces them to deal with each other and their misplaced rage and the floodgates open. You root and fear for them both and no, I won't be telling you any more plot. But both actors are impressively passionate, especially Hardy, who acts like a caged, wounded animal from start to finish. And if it's not an artistic achievement like, say, Raging Bull, it's a solidly, powerfully, emotional one. They call them "male weepies" for a reason and yes, dude, I cried.