Technically, they are both the victims and the perpetrators, but underground fighters do not make the rules and they reap little reward for their efforts. It is the criminal gangs promoting the fights that make all the money. A particularly nasty outfight is cutting through palookas like tissue paper, but they will mess with the wrong family of martial artists in Joe Gawalis’s Bare Knuckle Brawler, which releases today on DVD.
Joey Calderon was always the perfect son, following in the footsteps of his retired cop-sensei-father, Mike Calderon. Unfortunately, Steve Calderon was the family black sheep, but he is the only son their father has left after Joey is murdered by the fight-club gang he infiltrated. Of course, Steve is determined to bring Santo Ariza and his henchmen to justice, despite his father’s best efforts to dissuade him.
That is the tried-and-true premise of Knuckle in a nutshell. Granted, the narrative is not exactly overly complicated, but the fights scenes are impressively brutal. Yet, that arguably puts us a similar position to that of degenerate modern-day Coliseum spectators cheering for each death in the ring.
Frankly, Knuckle looks cheap and sub-professional. However, the greatest disappointment is the complete and baffling way the film under-employs Martin Kove (the mean-spirited Sensei Kreese in the Karate Kid/Cobra Kai franchise) as the Calderon patriarch. At least he gets to work with his son Jesse Kove, who portrays the ill-fated Calderon brother, while he is alive.
Co-screenwriter-co-producer Pete Passaro definitely has the right moves and physicality for an action hero like Calderon, but he lacks leading man looks and presence, vaguely resembling South African martial arts star James Ryan and his signature surfer hair, but not as cool. Fans will also be disappointed Danny Trejo does not have more screen time as Ariza, but he certainly comes to play, as always.
So yes, Gawalis and Passaro serve up some bone-crushing fights, but that is all viewers really get. Honestly, Bare Knuckle is knuckle-headed. Not recommended, Bare Knuckle Brawler releases today on DVD.