Samantha (Jeanette Roxborough) is a waitress struggling to get by in the dingy club where she works, frustrated by the skeezy customers and go-nowhere future it offers. One day, a grizzled old man calling himself Sonny Cool (Martin Kove) walks in, and introduces himself as a manager after Samantha uses a bit of her fighting skills to stop a bar fight. Samantha is skeptical at first, and Sonny's operation is decidedly low rent, fueled on other people's possessions and Sonny's ability to talk faster than others can object, but he gets Samantha into her first fight, which nets her a couple thousand bucks.
At first, I was lightly pleased with Bare Knucles because it wasn't wasting time. No irksome side plots about Sonny needing the money (Kove gives the impression, which is more than enough) or endless scenes of Samantha dithering. Not great, but at least it moves -- that is, until Samantha is taken down in one of her early fights by Mona (Bridgett "Baby Doll" Riley) and slinks back to her old job with her tail between her legs. The next 40 minutes are a slog as the movie introduces Samantha's mother-in-law (Joanne Baron), flashbacks of Samantha's dead husband, and worst of all, her disabled daughter (Teya Roxborough, Jeanette's real-life daughter). None of these storylines are interesting or well-developed enough to hold the audience's interest; it's a full serving of half-baked melodrama Etebari should have left on the sidelines. Eventually, Sonny convinces Samantha to fight again, which means another 10 minutes of "training" montages with Al (Chris Mulkey) and Flame (Spice Williams-Crosby). It's a good thing that Roxborough, Kove and Mulkey are all reasonably charismatic, retaining the lowest grade of watchability even in the movie's dryest moments (although Roxborough's crying scene is an extremely sour note).
Director Eric Etebari stages some reasonably hard-hitting fight sequences, but he's not particularly dynamic when it comes to his camera placement. One of the things that impressed me the most about Undisputed II (another Michael Jai White starrer) is how much the camera moved, swooping in and out (shades of Sam Raimi in that one). Etebari basically cycles through his list of angles, and during the home stretch, where the film should be the most brutal and the most tense, things start to get monotonous instead. He also manages to shoot in a way that I totally missed a cameo by Anthony Hopkins (at least, the IMDb claims there was one in there somewhere).
The back of the DVD boasts that Bare Knuckles was inspired by a true story, but by the time the movie's ending, even Etebari and his team have lost interest in Samantha and her daughter, or Sonny, or any of them. The moment the final fight is over (no guesses who wins), the credits start popping up, as if they're trying to rush the movie off stage. Bare Knuckles wants to have its cake and eat it too by cracking some skulls and then tugging the viewer's heartstrings, but, while I don't want to underestimate the movie's audience, I doubt they have both primed and ready at the same time.
The Video, and Audio
Dolby Digital 5.1 is weak and unimpressive. The mixing doesn't have any heft, and the directional effects are lackluster. At least the punches hit hard, but that's not saying much. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also provided.