One of the best shots in the glorious testosterone soaked Rocky IV involves a cut back to America, where Rocky’s young son is watching his epic showdown with superhuman Ivan Drago. The kids aren’t sitting, they’re bouncing up and down on the couch shouting, “punch ‘em, punch ‘em.” It’s a wonderful moment that always makes me laugh, because right here in the middle of this hyper-melodramatic parade of masculinity, the film feels compelled to give us an audience proxy. It’s damn right too. In this moment we are all eight-year-old boys yelling “punch ‘em.”
This is the same energy that James Kermack’s Knuckledust attempts to bring to the table, but ultimately falls short of. Kermack seems to be attempting to combine Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Never Back Down, but the film’s determination to be far too closer to Guy Ritche than Blumhouse mainstay Jeff Wadlow is 100% to its detriment. What I’m trying to say here is that Knuckledust would be way better if it were more willing to be simply about dudes beating the tar out of each other. Instead, it’s about the underworking’s of a criminal organization that runs a brutal, underground bare-knuckle mixed marital arts gambling ring, whose outcomes people bet on—human dogfighting if you will. And honestly, I could care less about how this exists. In the real world it doesn’t, and if I’m going to watch something that is completely in the realm of fantasy, then I’d much rather watch two guys killin’ each other.
Unfortunately, Kermack is much more interested in this underworld. His proxy is an ex-mercenary Hard Eight (Moe Dunford), who kicks off a shootout at the eponymous club, much to the chagrin of Kunckledust’s owner Serena (Camille Rowe). When the police arrive they find Hard Eight, who they presume to be the lone survivor here. This first act starts promising, particularly when Hard Eight steps into the ring to fight are behemoth of a man, but it rapidly devolves the second Hard Eight put a bullet right between the eyes of his opponent.
The film really devolves the second it becomes a frame narrative, which adds yet another layer to this film that should be quite simple, but is now becoming needlessly convoluted. The last thing Kunckledust needs is the potential of an unreliable narrator, and yet, it’s all the second and third acts are. The fight scenes themselves aren’t even much to write home about, and at times they are cloyingly referential. At one point, Hard Eight fights a gaggle leather clad BDSM sex club members in a style that is very clearly designed to ape Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. There’s no reason for this reference, other than to inform you that Oldboy is cool.
I have a feeling that many watching this might feel that they should just watch Park instead, which feels a little unfair but also self-inflicted. More than anything, I found this to be forgettable and indicative of all the worst trends of early 2000s crime cinema. They don’t make them like this anymore, but that might be for a reason.
- Rated: NR
- Genre: Action, Thriller
- Directed by: James Kermack
- Starring: Amy Bailey, Camille Rowe, Kate Dickie, Moe Dunford, Olivier Richters, Phil Davis
- Produced by: Julien Loeffler, Laurent Fumeron, Phil Hunt, Tom Harberd
- Written by: James Kermack
- Studio: Featuristic Films, OneWorld Entertainment, The Project, Trigger Films