Bare Knuckle Brawler, the third feature film from New York-based director Joe Gawalis, focuses on Steve Calderon (Pete Passaro), a black sheep in a family of cops and martial artists. When his younger brother Joey (Jesse Kove) is murdered while investigating the gruesome murder of two fighters, Steve dons his vigilante cloak and goes undercover in the underground world of bare knuckle brawling, which is run by the Mereta family. Most of the film centers on Steve’s attempts to infiltrate a secret fight that is rumored to be a fight to the death, the site of his brother’s murder.
Clearly, Bare Knuckle Brawler was made with a lot of love and attention to detail. The fight choreography is the best feature of this film since Bare Knuckle Brawler does make an effort to differentiate the different contenders by their fighting style rather than just their physical appearances. Yet most of the fights are darkly lit, and it favors its handheld aesthetic so much that the action isn’t clearly defined, even though we are supposed to be watching fearsome athletes. It is a shame since Bare Knuckle Brawler features many professional martial artists, including its lead, Passaro (who also co-wrote the script). It is clear that Passaro is a fighter first and foremost since when he is in the ring, he is clearly in his element. Despite being a man so muscular and fit, he manages to come across as a scrappy underdog, befitting the character he is playing. When Passaro isn’t fighting though, he clearly isn’t comfortable emoting or saying dialogue in a believable, naturalistic way, but to be fair, most of the other actors aren’t either.
The best performances are from the veteran actors in this film, Martin Kove (most famous perhaps for playing Sensei John Kreese in The Karate Kid) and Danny Trejo (Machete) as the announcer for the death match. Bare Knuckle Brawler could have easily featured Kove actually fighting and would have been a much more interesting movie if, say, he had been the one infiltrating the death match instead of his son. Yet the film saddles Kove with dialogue like “He was the good son!” without a trace of irony or self-awareness, and he also gets sidelined until the very end of the movie. The script also sets up storylines and characters that aren’t anything more than just landmarks in Passaro’s journey and ultimate goal to infiltrate the fight, such as his girlfriend Alicia (Deborah Twiss) and Raymond (Gerard Cordero), one of the decent guys he meets in this underworld. A screenwriter needs to make choices about which characters to focus on, but getting us to care about the side characters would have given a lot more meaning to Steve’s journey.
If one were to hear just the synopsis of Bare Knuckle Brawler, it would sound like a decently entertaining time, even if the plot isn’t terribly original. And there are still hints of a really good picture, especially when it focuses on the fight choreography and the camaraderie of the fighters. The final product unfortunately does not contain as much of these elements that could have potentially elevated the film above others in its genre.