As 'Brawler' is yet another addition to the increasingly crowded sibling/sports drama niche, then the following analogy certainly applies: If 'The Fighter' and 'Warrior' are those successful uncles who needn't even R.S.V.P. the reunion, then 'Brawler' is the drunken cousin who wasn't invited, but still managed to show up anyway.
Writer-director Chris Sivertson ('I Know Who Killed Me') has set this tale of bloody-knuckled sibling rivalry against the gritty backdrop of New Orleans and an underground world of mafia-connected MMA fighting – and has dipped much of his film in dusty sepia tones to prove it. But instead of playing up the film's clear (and only) selling point of extreme fighting, Sivertson's effort is largely concerned with the crumbling family dynamic between a pair of bayou brothers, Charlie (Nathan Grubbs) and Bobby Fontaine (Marc Senter).
And that is a shame.
From the onset, it's clear both brothers are equally adept at exchanging punches for cash, but that is where the similarities end. Charlie is the more grounded of the two; besides fighting, he holds down a regular job doing construction, and has managed to find a steady girl by the name of Kat (Pell James), who spends most of her time downing copious amounts of booze and putting various illicit white powders up her nose. Meanwhile, Bobby is portrayed as the rogue brother. We know this because Bobby so quickly falls into the realm of cliché that he doesn't even need the Jeremy Davies 'Justified' haircut to tell us he's uninterested in doing things on the straight and narrow. Bobby owes money to a set of unsavory, and mostly unseen criminal types, who run the unsanctioned fights from ships docked in the New Orleans harbor. Thanks to the expository nature of the film's script, there is plenty of information given on these criminal entrepreneurs, but they're mostly represented onscreen by a guy with the decidedly non-threatening name of Walter (this guy definitely isn't the one who knocks).
Proving he may have taken one too many knees to the noggin, Bobby sells a bag of cocaine to some LSU frat boys, swapping out the drugs for baby powder. In response, the frat boys pull the very un-Belushi move of breaking into Bobby's house to settle the score with a baseball bat. Being the good brother, Charlie comes to the rescue and ends up with a shattered knee for his trouble.
Because the film is searching for drama every which way it can, 'Brawler' takes the seemingly morally bankrupt Bobby and puts him in close proximity with the ever-inebriated Kat – who, on account of Bobby breaking the air conditioner, accentuates her drunken stupor by wearing sweat-soaked tank tops and barely-there shorts. The inevitability of Bobby and Charlie's sudden conflict is as obvious as the film's inescapable climax. Siverston and his actors try their best to frame the discord in the sordidness of a brother's betrayal, but really, 'Brawler' was just waiting for the chance to flip the switch and suddenly transform Charlie and Bobby into rabid animals intent on killing one another.
While that idea could be interesting, the problem soon becomes the film's thin script, which is centered on the absolute weakest of motivations and two characters – neither remotely sympathetic nor completely detestable – who fail to arouse or convey much real emotion during the film's mercifully short runtime. There seems to be the expectation that if enough of 'Brawler' resembles other films, e.g., 'Warrior,' then it will be able to eek by on that film's critical success and find its way into unsuspecting homes like so many 'Transmorphers' and 'Snakes on a Train.' However, the intended moral struggle that is tempered by familial constraints never manages to rise above some truly hackneyed dialogue that struggles as much with implication as it does with simple conversation.
There are some things worth liking in them film, however. Michael Bowen, who plays Papa Fontaine's former boxing trainer, Rex, takes the tired role of aging coach and manages to put enough of a likeable spin on it to make the character work. Meanwhile, former 'Mad Men' character actor Bryan Batt shows up as "Fat Chucky," a gay fight fan in as much hot water with the wrong kind of people as Bobby. Though the script asks as little of Batt and Bowen as it does everyone else, both men manage to make waiting for the film's conclusion feel a little less dreary.
Beyond comparisons to 'The Fighter' or 'Warrior,' Sivertson's script winds up putting too much of his film's pugilistic concerns on the backburner, and that's what ultimately does 'Brawler' in. The director has essentially book-ended an unsurprising and somewhat banal story – complete with a climax foretold by its cover box – with two short, but admittedly impressive bouts. While the fighting thankfully eschews the highly choreographed excess of some fight films, that, along with strong performances by Bowen and Batt, still only adds up to a rather ineffective whole.
Much of what is onscreen looks dingy and dirty. Yes, this is deliberate on behalf of the director and his cinematographer, Zoran Popovic – and the end result is decidedly mixed. What is an already dark image, with occasionally low detail, is further obscured by the incessant sepia tones and poor contrast. The effect tends to overshadow what is taking place onscreen, resulting in a low-budget indie film that regrettably has none of the charm of its similarly budgeted brethren. High amounts of grain feel tacked on to get a certain point across, and the results are blacks that bleed into or swallow the image, and intermittent whites that bloom and further dilute the picture.
There are scenes, however, where the purposefully muted palette works to the advantage of the disc. In these rare instances (one under the stark light of day, and another at a cocktail party) colors manage to look bright, and detail is mostly sharp; there is even a hint of deep, rich black levels that are mostly absent elsewhere. On the whole, though, these scenes are rare and only add to the uneven look of the disc.
Overall, the intended artistry of the image just doesn't ring true. Like the story, there's not enough detail underneath to buy what's being superimposed over it.
In an effort to remind viewers they're watching a movie set in the Big Easy, 'Brawler' adds quite a bit of local New Orleans flavor to its soundtrack. This ever-present cue is so unsubtle as to render the intended response moot. Moreover, the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix comes off as a rather uneven and hollow affair that favors musical selections to sound effects and dialogue.
The mix's balance is mostly to blame, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the source recording of the dialogue may have something to do with voices being barley audible much of the time. Unfortunately, the consequence of such a low source is that in order to hear what precisely is being said, you run the risk of being completely overwhelmed by the next musical selection in the queue. That being said, fans of the music will likely have little to complain about, as the dynamic range of such selections borders on superb.
Elsewhere, sound effects manage to utilize the rear channels to decent effect. The fight scenes are a particularly good example of this. Imaging and directionality balance crowd noise and the satisfying thud of fists on flesh quite well. As these scenes are largely the film's bread and butter, it's good to see some effort was made to have them adequately represented by the audio mix.
'Brawler' is light on supplements, offering a few previews that play automatically when the disc starts up, and a full trailer for the film itself.
The worst offense made by 'Brawler' isn't the utter unoriginality of it all, it's not even the pretentious way in which it dirties itself up; it is the burden it places on the audience to buy into a family drama that vacillates wildly between love and hatred without bothering to create a foundation of character on which those emotions can actually resonate. Charlie punches people but is basically a good guy. Conversely, Bobby punches people and is a loathsome individual with personality traits bordering on psychopathic. But the film never answers the question of why it's important these two men are at odds with one another. Yes, we get the betrayal is a catalyst, but at a certain point, the film needs to suggest the conflict means something. Is the audience supposed to care simply because Charlie and Bobby are brothers? Perhaps the audience is asked to care because 'Brawler' claims to be "based on a true story." Beyond being told they are siblings, there's nothing convincing to suggest real emotion between the two. Furthermore, placing characters in a conflict where the outcome is foretold long before any discord is created, removes the uncertainty that makes differences interesting. 'Brawler' wants to be about a family torn asunder by betrayal, but ends with a denouement so superficial and tacked on that it leaves the viewer wondering what all the fighting was about.