Written and directed by: Chris Sivertson
Featuring: Nathan Grubbs, Marc Senter, Pell James, Michael Bowen, Bryan Batt
Brothers Charlie (Nathan Grubbs) and Bobby (Marc Senter) Fontaine are part of an underground, mob-run fighting competition held on New Orleans riverboats. Charlie, the older, more stable of the two, has a steady job in construction and a serious girlfriend (Pell James). Bobby is a directionless playboy who is involved in several shady odd jobs, many of them mob-related. The siblings are the progeny of a local fighting legend and are respected by their late father’s peers and the old school mobster hierarchy. Though both brothers enjoy a surface celebrity, neither has been able to achieve much beyond a working class existence.
When debtors go after Bobby, his protective brother ends up with a broken leg while defending him. Recovering from his injury, Charlie marries his girlfriend Kat – a timid, unmotivated woman who leans heavily on alcohol and cocaine. Because he’s unable to keep a steady job, Bobby finds himself without a place to live and ends up staying with Charlie and Kat. Fueled by alcohol and a mutual (though unfounded) resentment of Charlie, Kat and Bobby share a heated encounter in the kitchen. Their tryst is interrupted by Charlie, who overpowers his brother and literally beats him out into the street. This betrayal sets the stage, not surprisingly, for a fight between the two on the mob-run riverboat competition.
Brawler is far more compelling than its clichéd narrative would suggest. Writer/director Chris Sivertson wisely takes a naturalistic approach to the proceedings, giving the inevitable story turns some dramatic weight. Nathan Grubbs has an assured presence and, while not an accomplished actor, does imbue a sense of world-weary authenticity to the role. Both he and Marc Senter share an easy charisma, and each of them more than meet the physical requirements of their characters. Senter comes off as the more seasoned of the two, but his cocky, often over-the-top performance feels out of sync with the rest of the cast.
Pell James, as the woman who comes between the two brothers, offers a believable, if not especially memorable, take on her flawed character. The best performance comes from Michael Bowen (The Last House on the Left remake) as Charlie’s grizzled trainer, Rex. His few scenes with Grubbs underline the strong generational ties of their world and add context to Charlie and his plight. Sivertson’s script isn’t interested in traditional movie-speak, keeping the dialogue conversational and intimate. The casual, more human approach to the characters and subject matter is what separates Brawler from the typical action yarn. The “based on true events” gimmick is used but, however real the unfolding events may have been, this knowledge adds nothing to the narrative.
Though there may not be enough fight scenes to please the modern action crowd, Sivertson and cinematographer Zoran Popovic (Grace) orchestrate some intense, energetic sequences. The final brawl between the two brothers is appropriately suspenseful even with the obvious outcome. Much credit should go to Grubbs and Senter, who give their fight sequences a raw, believable intensity. If the two used stunt doubles on the set, it's nearly impossible to tell.
Silvertson’s film is all the more impressive when you consider that he was also responsible for directing the terrible Lindsay Lohan thriller I Know Who Killed Me. That 2007 film, which inexplicably received a wide theatrical release, was shot with a pretentious and distracting mise en scene. Here, he’s kept in check with Popovic’s steady camera and naturalistic lighting. Beautiful New Orleans locations are used to great effect, providing a nice sense of place. Brawler won’t win any awards for originality, but it’s a solid action film that often avoids a sense of déjà vu with a grounded, naturalistic aesthetic.
This Xlrator Blu-ray release (in a DVD combo pack) features a sharp widescreen presentation of the film along with a trailer. The soundtrack on the Blu-ray (in DTS HD) doesn’t appear to be mixed properly. Dialogue scenes are often soft juxtaposed with music cues that are too loud. Whether or not the film was originally released with this mix, the sound levels are extreme and need to be corrected.