A seven-layered fight club, where the competitors win by killing their opponent feels like something closer to a straight-to-DVD Danny Dyer/Jason Statham/Craig Fairbrass property that you might pick up in the specials bin at the shop on the local petrol station forecourt. You know the one. However, thankfully despite the premise’s seemingly repetitive nature, Knuckledust has quite a bit more than that going on in what is one of the more unique films released in 2020. In fact, at points it borders on batshit crazy.
It’s difficult to summarise the plot to Knuckledust because of the narrative style the film uses, but in short it follows Brody, AKA Hard Eight who is seemingly forced to fight to the death in an underground fight club. However, once police raid the club they find only Brody and a stack of bodies strewn over five floors. As Brody is taken into custody it’s up to the police to find out how events transpired and whether Brody is a mass-murderer, a survivor or a bit of both. As you’d imagine, things are far from that simple.
Knuckledust is stylistically, pretty unique and although it has its problems (more on that shortly), the visuals involved are fantastic. There are stylistic nods to Sin City, animated scenes that recall the similar sequences in Quentin Tarrantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, as well as a host of very welcome nods to a whole host of classic John Carpenter movies (including one particularly lovely, if not sledgehammer subtle reference to Big Trouble in Little China at the very end of the movie, although that was less of a visual reference). There were clearly very strong influences on writer/director James Kermack, although it never overpowers proceedings. From an aesthetics point of view everything in Knuckledust is spot on. A synth-heavy soundtrack rounds it out and gives some real depth, which makes this feel like a very different proposition from the average British film about an underground fighting ring. In addition, the
The script for Knuckledust has plenty of sharp dialogue, which certainly helps move things along throughout. Although some of the delivery isn’t necessarily of a consistently high standard, the witty lines bring a sense of levity that really helps lift things as the film goes along. On the other hand, the pacing of the acts is problematic. The first twenty minutes spends a lot of time establishing the fight club concept, only to then use a time-shifting narrative device for the rest of the film, perhaps suggesting that the initial scenes could have been presented in the same way. While the second act is very solid and builds slowly, the third act has too many big reveals in too short a period of time for any of them to pack the punch Kermack clearly intended and instead it muddies and confuses in a way that undoes much of his earlier good work.
While the pacing and script may have issues, Kermack’s direction and the acting performances from the main leads do plenty to carry the film and make it an enjoyable experience. Moe Dunford brings an earnestness and real everyman quality to Hard Eight that makes him likeable enough to carry the majority of the film, and he certainly holds his own in the action stakes, helped by some very capable direction from Kermack. Phil Davis is impactful, if not underused as Happy, while Jaime Winstone, Kate Dickie and Camilla Rowe all shine in their individual roles. Although this is a male-dominated film, it is not without a number of strong female characters which is refreshing in this sort of film.
Knuckledust is largely a very enjoyable, highly stylised, slick action movie. It suffers from some overly complicated and less than impactful twists in the final third which somewhat diminish the earlier good work the film does, but in general it is a very accomplished, very well made British movie.