Bare-knuckle boxing in the Big Easy is the hook to “Brawler,” a pugilistic parable about brothers slugging their way through the marginalized, mobbed-up world of extreme fighting in New Orleans. The “human cockfighting” aspect of this stylized drama from writer-helmer Chris Sivertson (“I Know Who Killed Me”) often takes a backseat to an underdeveloped and rather predictable tale of sibling rivalry, as well as a setup and climax one could see from Shreveport. But there’s some good action, and certainly an abundance of attitude, by which the film could well find a way into the hearts of young male auds.
Weaving a kind of Cain-and-Abel story for which Zoran Popovic’s lensing is almost too slick, Charlie Fontaine (Nathan Grubbs) and brother Bobby (Marc Senter) are the unbeatable up-and-comers on N.O.’s illicit fight scene, which is headquartered on boats in the harbor and involves no end of shady characters. The pic reveals abundant background information for those characters in snippets of dialogue, establishing the House of Fontaine as a respected local concern, and letting the viewer know, without being overburdened, that Charlie and Bobby’s father was a fighter, too, and that they live in his shadow.
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The brothers, despite equally lethal prowess in the ring, take disparate approaches to life. Charlie works a day job in construction and does crossword puzzles, which in this milieu makes him an intellectual. He also has a steady girlfriend, Kat (Pell James), which marks him as stable, even though she’s something of a train wreck, drinking and snorting too much coke, and more or less waiting for Bobby to make his move. Bobby, meanwhile, owes money to all the wrong people, and tries to make it back by selling baby powder as cocaine, which leads to a bunch of unwanted people coming to his house one night, and an altercation during which Charlie gets the worst of things.
Leads Grubbs and Senter, who also produced, are more than believable as brothers, less so as tortured sibs, which they have to become to suit the convolutions of Sivertson’s narrative: It’s a bit hard to swallow them progressing so quickly from brothers who amiably elbow each other to opponents who want to kill each other. And although there’s the Kat factor to consider, it all doesn’t quite click. The script is essentially undercooked, with a lot of overheated dialogue that implies what the film is supposed to be saying without anyone actually saying it. They all love New Orleans, Charlie loves Kat, Bobby loves Charlie; in fact, there’s a lot of love in this film when people aren’t trying to kill each other.
Supporting cast is solid, with Garrett Hines impressive as Charlie’s veteran boxing trainer, Rex, an old friend of his dad’s; Dane Rhodes, as a local wiseguy, gives a very understated but intelligent performance. The music, while flavorful, makes its point — yes, we are in New Orleans — a bit too strenuously.