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OLDENBURG, Germany – Chris Sivertson’s Brawler wastes no time. In lieu of opening-credits, the film takes us straight into the ring — more accurately, a cage made of elastic mesh. In it, fighters go at each other with abandon, a mixture of boxing, kicking and wrestling. The Fontaine brothers, who win their respective bouts, are easily defined by their fighting-style: Bobby (Marc Senter) is the younger, reckless sibling, while Charlie (Nathan Grubbs) is as levelheaded as possible for a guy who regularly gets his head bashed in on New Orlean’s illegal riverboat-boxing circuit.
While the film enters a perpetually congested field dominated by critically acclaimed A-Listers like The Wrestler, The Fighter and Warrior while crowded at the bottom by the heirs of Seagal and Van Damme, Brawler offers enough local color and dark twists to eke out a living on the specialized circuit, with festivals and home entertainment at the top of the bill.
But as dangerous as the fighting might seem, it’s life outside the arena that proves the biggest challenge, with Bobby’s recklessness sending both on a downward spiral that can only end in the biggest, most personal brawl of them all: fighting each other without pulling any punches.
Sivertson, whose last effort, I Know You Killed Me, was perfectly timed and titled to serve as possibly an obituary for Lindsay Lohan’s career, is clearly more interested in the personal drama between the two fighters than the fights themselves. Nevertheless, he proves to have a knack for putting controlled chaos on the screen. Without the taint of elaborate choreography (or excessive brutality), these bouts are as real as it gets without diminishing their dramatic potential.
On dry land (so to speak), Sivertson’s footing sometimes proves less agile. While some dramatic scenes, such as Bobby sleeping with his brother’s wife and the ensuing confrontation, are as taut as steel wire, others play more like acting class exercises, still dramatic but somewhat removed from the film itself.
Bobby’s character serves an unending source for plot developments from his half-assed effort at ripping off a college kid that ends in Charlie getting his kneecaps bashed in to his debts nearly force him to cripple a trusting, homosexual friend (Mad Man’s Bryan Batt in a thoughtful and touching, if typecast, performance).
Grubbs and Senter, who also produced the film, prove adept at deep tragedy. While Senter is clearly the Christian Bale of the film, topping one bad idea or impulse with another one without guilt or guile, Grubbs proves to be a more than adequate Mark Wahlberg, hanging on when every instinct and person tells him not to, combining pure hatred with the unconditional love that only kinship can create. Meanwhile Pell James’ Kat remains believable and fragile even when (and especially after) betraying the only man she truly loves.
The film’s other star is New Orleans itself. Brawler takes great advantage of its location, using the city’s inherent production value to its fullest and upgrading the film’s modest budget by a notch or two. Other technical credits are fine for a low budget release, including Zoran Popovics’ crisp cinematography and snappy editing by Abe Levy and Phil Norden. Use of original music does overpower certain scenes though.
Venue: Oldenburg International Film Festival
Production company: GFY Films
Cast: Nathan Grubbs, Marc Senter, Pell James, Michael Bowen, Bryan Batt
Director/screenwriter: Chris Sivertson
Producers: Marc Senter, Nathan Grubbs
Executive producer: Captain Jack Grubbs, Tommy Ajubita, Jarrett McNeely
Director of photography: Zoran Popovic
Production designers: Sandra McDougall, Denise Greenwood
Music: Tim Rutili
Costume designer: Shareen Chehade
Editors: Abe Levy, Philip Norden
No rating, 87 minutes
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