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Review: Chris Sivertson's Brawler, starring Nathan Grubbs (Fantasia 2011)

Aug. 2, 2011by: Chris Bumbray

Note: This review is based on an unfinished rough cut of the film.

PLOT: Two brothers (Nathan Grubbs & Marc Senter), both of whom are champs in the New Orleans bare-fist fighting underworld; settle a family score in the ring. REVIEW: Chris Sivertson’s BRAWLER is a perfect example of the kind of low-budget indie film-making the Fantasia Film Festival champions each and every year, whether or not it happens to be a genre flick. BRAWLER, despite coming from the same guy who rocked the house at Fantasia a few years ago with his film adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s THE LOST, is more of a gritty HARD TIMES style story, mixed in with a little underworld seasoning. It reminds me a bit of the type of film James Gray makes, with this having a lot in common with some of his earlier work like LITTLE ODESSA, and THE YARDS.

The illegal, bare fist brawls in BRAWLER are a heck of a lot different than you’ll likely be seeing in the similarly-themed WARRIOR, which is slated to open next month, with that dealing instead in sanctioned, UFC brawls. This is more of the LIONHEART variety, minus the Van Damme posturing. The fights are bloody, bone-crunching stuff, and the type of place where a fighter could easily get killed if he lets his guard down.

Both Grubbs and Senter handle themselves well in the ring, and make for convincing fighters. Each has their advantage, with Grubbs being a burlier, brawler type, and Senter more of a wild, MMA kinda guy. The climatic fight between the two brothers goes on something like ten minutes, and it’s really well-shot, and edited, and yards away from the slick, Hollywood fights we usually get.

My problems with BRAWLER lie with the script, with the whole brother vs. brother thing being a bit cliché. Of course, Grubbs is the dependable, level-headed one, while Senter’s the wild, coke-snorting trouble maker with designs on his bro’s girlfriend (Pell James). It’s been done before, although- to be fair, BRAWLER is being sold as a true story, and, despite the “been there, done that” plot, it never gets as melodramatic, and mawkish as it could have.

In some ways, BRAWLER felt to me like a bit of an unpolished gem, with maybe it being little more than a bit of re-shooting, and some script tweaks away from being a real winner. Whatever the case, the essentials are there, with strong performances from Senter and Grubbs. The supporting work is also quite good, with Michael Bowen having a gem of a role as their trainer, and the great Bryan Batt (Sal from MAD MEN) adding some color as the local, pompadour-wearing mobster. The gritty, New Orleans-setting is also very atmospheric, and having been lucky enough to visit recently, I can say that they got the great color and vibe of the city down pat.

All in all, I was so-so on BRAWLER, but I can see the potential here, with the film currently existing as a sort of diamond in the rough. Regardless of whether or not they work on it any further, it’s still a solid film, and worth checking out for the performances and terrific fight scenes.

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