After discovering THE LOST a couple weeks back I wanted to see what else writer/director Chris Sivertson had done. The answer was I KNOW WHO KILLED ME and this underground fighting movie that coincidentally has just come to disc. It’s like the guy predicted when I would catch up with him and said “You know what, I want to do something special for ol’ Vern. Give him a movie in a genre he enjoys.”
To be honest it’s a stretch to classify BRAWLER as an action movie. It’s most comparable to FIGHTING, but leaning heavier on the indie drama side and lighter on the fighting and brawlering. It’s about Charlie and Bobby Fontaine, brothers who are part of a circuit run by the mob that cage fights on a boat on the Mississippi. Charlie is the older, more responsible brother, played by Nathan Grubbs, who also is credited with the story. I had to look him up, but it turns out he’s a real New Orleans native who wrote and starred in another one called DOWN IN NEW ORLEANS, so this is kinda his thing. Bobby is the out-of-control younger brother, uses and sells coke, owes money to dangerous people, gets into fights in bathrooms. He’s played by Marc Senter, who was so great as the maniacal lead in THE LOST and is also very good here.
There are a couple other connections to THE LOST. Michael Bowen, one of the detectives in the other one is very likable here as Charlie’s fighting mentor. Megan Henning, who was Ed Lauter’s young girlfriend Sally (and apparently also is in I KNOW WHO KILLED ME) has a really funny scene as a girl who hates Bobby and lays into him with sarcasm while he tries to talk to her roommate. (Unlike Ray Pye he’s able to absorb it.) No Ed Lauter or Misty Mundae, though. But I hope Sivertson is building his own little repertory company here. I’d like to see this crew keep showing up together.
Charlie has a loving relationship with a troubled woman named Kat (Pell James) who he marries, but she seems to be unhappy. When Bobby invites himself to crash at their house for a while (to hide from people he owes money, it turns out) they spend the nights knocking down beers and the days laying around and making mint juleps. He’s a bad influence but she knows better. If they could just be buddies it would be sort of sweet, but you know it’s a ticking time bomb to when they’re gonna fuck and it’s gonna turn into a story about two fighter brothers who are gonna face each other in the cage. Like WARRIOR but without a tournament and with way more bitterness between the siblings.
The story isn’t strong, but it’s more about the setting and the raw style than the narrative, and for me it worked. It’s about the tone and the little moments between the characters and the visual detail and texture of New Orleans. There’s alot of regional music – a raw, bluesy “Down By the Riverside” during a training montage makes for an interesting juxtaposition as they are clearly not training “for war no more” – and great location shooting. I mean, there are alot of montages with the brothers and Kat strutting around laughing with each other, grabbing each other’s heads, enjoying life. You know those type of montages. But it has a real strong feel of the intoxicating atmosphere of the place.
I think the opening claimed this was “based on true events,” I wonder if that means they really fight on riverboats? In the opening there’s a fight going on, and you learn that there’s a brass band on an upper deck that plays some good old New Orleans jazz at the conclusion of a fight (which are like early UFC – no rounds, no weight classes, no eye gouging, yes hair pulling, though most don’t do it). And there’s a guy in the crowd who turns out to be one of the bosses, you seem him eating an apple. And I thought man, that must be a great feeling. Hot New Orleans night, on a boat, horn section playing, people fighting in a cage, and you get a big juicy bite of apple. I wondered if maybe they sell apples on the boat, or if he just had the foresight to bring one. He just knew that would be enjoyable. Smart guy.
The story is very basic and predictable, and not entirely satisfying, but there’s enough dramatic conflict that when they’re in the ring together I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen between them and even started to get nervous about how they were gonna handle this situation. The main fight is pretty well done in a mostly realistic UFC type of style, but extra brutal because of the relationship that’s been set up and the knowledge that these two both love and hate each other and are literally at each other’s throats. There’s also a pretty well done chaotic front yard scuffle scene. The other fights are quick and not really emphasized, though.
As I have exhaustively chronicled, there are a surprising number of underground fighting classics that have gone straight to video in the last decade or so. In terms of straight entertainment and awesomeness this one is clearly not gonna unseat the UNDISPUTEDs or BLOOD AND BONE, and I also prefer FIGHTING and DAMAGE. Still, BRAWLER has an artistry and feel that are distinct from the others, and I appreciate that. It’s a worthwhile addition to the movement.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.