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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Two films with one word titles will be vying for box office supremacy this weekend. "Contagion" is about a flu epidemic that causes millions of deaths. "Warrior" is about sibling rivalry in a working class family.

Our critic, Bob Mondello, says "Contagion" is an epic writ small, while "Warrior" is a domestic drama writ large.

BOB MONDELLO: You'd have to call the task facing director Steven Soderbergh daunting. In "Contagion," he has to show a single case of bird flu morphing into a worldwide pandemic. Basically, he has to scare us to death with something we can't see.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CONTAGION")

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (as Dr. Ellis Cheever) So we have a novel virus with a mortality rate in the low 20s, no treatment protocol and no vaccine at this time.

FEMALE ACTOR: That is correct.

MONDELLO: The director also has to keep us interested in whether that something we can't see is affecting specific people we don't know, because they die almost as soon as we meet them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CONTAGION")

MALE ACTOR: Now what do I do?

KATE WINSLET: (as Dr. Erin Mears) Don't talk to anyone. Don't touch anyone. That's the most important thing.

MONDELLO: Disaster movie style star casting helps. You already know, say, Gwyneth Paltrow and you probably don't want to see her foaming at the mouth any more than hubby, Matt Damon, does.

Soderbergh, who put plenty of famous faces through their paces in "Oceans 11," is not turning the search for a vaccine into "Potions 11." Rather, he's using his stars to anchor the screenplay's ideas.

Damon is family. Kate Winslet is research. Laurence Fishburne is government. And when blogger Jude Law, who represents all things alarmist, meets scientist Elliott Gould, who is all things rational, you know whose side you're on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CONTAGION")

ELLIOTT GOULD: (as Dr. Ian Sussman) ...virus, potentially a mutant...

JUDE LAW: (as Alan Krumwiede) ...and Frankenstein all in one.

GOULD: (as Dr. Ian Sussman) Hold on. Look, get away from here, (unintelligible). You're not a doctor and you're not a writer.

LAW: (as Alan Krumwiede) Yes, I am a writer. Yes, I am.

GOULD: (as Dr. Ian Sussman) Blogging is not writing. It's graffiti with punctuation.

LAW: (as Alan Krumwiede) I am a journalist in an informed discussion on the Blogosphere. This is a biological weapon.

MONDELLO: With this sort of snappy writing and attention to detail, Soderbergh makes his macro point work on a micro level - that speed can be dangerous, both in viral transmission and in transmission of unhelpful ideas.

It takes less than a minute at the beginning of "Contagion" before you're thinking about viral transmission, noticing the things people touch on the screen, a cup handle, a coin.

And as for idea transmission, just note how anxious you are to suppress that little cough you came into the theater with, so as not to alarm the folks sitting near you. Nothing like bumping elbows in a crowd to make this movie's point about panic and to establish that "Contagion" is not perhaps the ideal date movie, at least not if you're hoping for more than a good night fist bump.

"Warrior" takes the opposite approach in almost every respect. It's a very small, very blunt, blue collar Pittsburgh story with a lot on its mind about what working class folks are up against these days.

It centers on two estranged brothers, neither of whom can stand their alcoholic dad, who's growled into vibrant life by Nick Nolte. Iraq war vet Tommy is damaged goods, as played by Tom Hardy, angry, brutal, quite literally spoiling for a fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WARRIOR")

TOM HARDY: (as Tommy Conlon) I'll fight him.

MONDELLO: His brother Brendan, played by Joel Edgerton, is at the opposite end of the spectrum - family-oriented, a high school physics teacher who only enters the ring because he has to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVE, "WARRIOR")

JOEL EDGERTON: (as Brendan Conlon) We've got to sell the house in three months. We're running out of options here.

JENNIFER MORRISON: (as Tess Conlon) I'd rather go back to an apartment than see you in the back of an ambulance again. I thought we agreed that we weren't going to raise our children in a family where their father gets beat up for a living.

MONDELLO: You hear the fight movie cliches piling up, no? Wife who has no say, battling brothers, everything's riding on the big match. Later, there's a scary Russian fighter, training montages. This is not a movie to go to for plot surprises. The filmmakers have clearly read the Old Testament and seen "Rocky."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WARRIOR")

HARDY: (as Tommy Conlon) Growing up, you all wanted to know who the toughest kid in the neighborhood was, right? I want to know who the toughest man on the planet is. That's what we're going to find out.

MONDELLO: Writer/director Gavin O'Connor whips up lots of mixed martial arts excitement as he makes sibling rivalry a spectator sport and also gets the family and social dynamics right. These guys say they're fighting for the big prize, but in the movie's scheme of things, they're fighting to get back a little of what's been taken from them by the recession, by their father, by life. And as a result, "Warrior" ends up feeling a lot bigger than you expect it to.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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