BRAWLER Film Review

Sean Smithson, Contributor
Taking place during the era when the prototype for MMA was forming from the slag of sweat and blood, brothers Charlie Fontaine and Bobby Fontaine are fighters on the New Orleans underground boxing circuit, ground zero for the burgeoning movement, in director Chris Sivertson's Brawler.

Charlie (newcomer Nathan Grubbs) is the older, calmer, more sage-like and settled of the two. Younger brother Bobby (Marc Senter from Red, White, & Blue) is the loose cannon, wild, erratic, and too-charismatic for everyone's good.
In an epic yet exemplary screw up, Bobby sells baking soda to some frat boys and the situation ends up with the overprotective Charlie getting a baseball bat to the knee, summarily ending, for all intents and purposes, a serious career in the ring.

Soon, because of his own inability to keep his life together, Bobby has to move in with his injured brother, and his beautiful wife, Kat (Pell James) who is battling her own demons, most of which waft out of a bottle. While Charlie works everyday at his construction job, Bobby and Kat spend the day drinking and becoming increasingly intimate. When Charlie offers his unappreciative younger brother some weekend work as a caterer to make some scratch, it goes south. There is an altercation between the young, arrogant Bobby and and an affluent suit and tie guy, who knows him from his work in the ring, and it is then fully realized that there is only one career path for the troubled youngest Fontaine. That is, if he doesn't get himself whacked the local wiseguys who are running the shady side of things as far as the underground fight circuit, who Bobby is indebted to.

Eventually, things indeed heat-up between Kat and Bobby, and the brothers end up torn asunder. There can only be one logical end to the situation. Them being the infamous Fontaine brothers, a brawl between the both of them would bring in a lot of gambling dollars, and soon the two are talked into settling it in the ring.

Brawler is another quality addition to the classic pantheon of fight films and beautiful loser epics. Name checks include Mean Streets, Hard Times, Fat City, and The Set-Up.

Relative newcomer Nathan Grubbs, who also conceived the story for Brawler, arrives fully formed, and grounds the good-guy character of Charlie (the "John Garfield" role, right down to sharing the characters name from the classic Body And Soul) in believable quirks to where we buy he is such a good, loving, unselfish man. He never loses the character in maudlin tones, or becomes a martyr. No small feet, considering some of the situations the character puts up with in this film.

Then, there is the return of actor Marc Senter, this being his second collaboration with director Chris Sivertson, who together made an impact with film fans with The Lost back in 2006, adapted from the brutal Jack Ketchum novel, in which Senter played psycho killer Ray Pye. His role as Bobby in Brawler is easily his most assured performance, channeling 100% asshole, and tempering it with a charm that somehow still leaves the viewer liking him, albeit begrudgingly.

Like any great "Neighborhood Gothic" Brawler has some great peripheral characters as well. "Fat Chucky", the enthusiastic and generous gay bear of a fight fan, played by Bryan Batt (Mad Men) who has pissed some of the wrong people off. The trainer, "Rex Baker", who worked with the Fontaine's father, and is now rehabbing the elder Charlie for his final step into the ring, played by Michael Bowen, will be a break-out role if there's any justice. Bowen is natural and commanding, a real spark and catalyst for the heart of this film. The alcoholic wife "Kat" played by Pell James is affecting and a more than a little heartbreaking, as we watch this beautiful woman circling the inevitable drain of an already damaged life.

It seems like there are a lot of fight films dropping right now, with David O. Russel's The Fighter, and Warrior starring it-guy Tom Hardy. Both those films are very much their own thing, and the same goes for Brawler. I'd absolutely put Brawler in the same league with both of those films, and see the three as forming a perfect modern triptych of films about fisticuffs, and the lives of people who make their living putting up their dukes.

You can hear actors/writers/producers Marc Senter and Nathan Grubbs on the next episode of The Night Crew as well, recorded during the recent Lund International fantastic Film Festival
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