Plot: Samantha (Jeanette Roxborough) is trying to make ends meet, but despite working multiple jobs, she barely scrapes by. She just wants to make a better life for herself and her daughter, so she pushes ahead. At one of her jobs, she serves drinks as a waitress, but also tends to called on if customers get bent out of shape, as she is a martial arts practitioner and can more than hold her own. When a scuffle breaks out one night and Samantha is able to contain and control the situation with ease, her skills are noticed by Sonny (Martin Kove), a former fight promoter. He is able to convince Samantha to give bare knuckle brawls a chance, since the money is good and she obviously has the talent to be a star there. She racks up some quick wins and attracts the attention of sleazy promoter Nedish (Louis Mandylor), who wants to rush her into a big money fight, while Sonny thinks she needs more experience. Can Samantha become a dominant force on the bare knuckle circuit and will she choose Sonny’s sage guidance or opt for the fast money that Nedish promises?
Entertainment Value: An underground female fight circuit is a fun premise, but I don’t think Bare Knuckles ever tries to make the potential come through, settling for a fine, if forgettable martial arts movie. The narrative is passable, a woman fighting to give her kid a better life, but the story is one we’ve seen numerous times and there’s little done here to pump in fresh blood. I also know not every action flick wants to be a wild b movie, but Bare Knuckles takes itself too seriously at times, which doesn’t work out too well. If the story and characters here were really on point, that serious approach might have fared better, but this is basic, even generic material, the kind of stuff some b movie magic could work wonders for. The fight scenes save the movie to be sure, as the dramatic elements fall flat in most scenes and you’re left hoping the next battle comes sooner rather than later. Bare Knuckles has a good cast and decent action, but stalls outside of the martial arts clashes and in the end, just isn’t that much fun to watch compared to some of its peers.
As much as I was interested in the premise of Bare Knuckles, I was pushed to give it a look because of Martin Kove’s presence. He was of course the legendary sensei in The Karate Kid, but I also love the cheese soaked action movies he made, so I try to watch whenever I see his name pop up. I appreciated that his role here is substantial, as sometimes old school action stars are given high billing, but have little more than a cameo in the movie itself. Not the case here however, as he has a lot of screen time and is a central part of the narrative. His performance is fine and gives him a chance to show off his acting chops a little, since the action is handled by his female costars. I think he does well with the material he is given, but I wouldn’t call this one of his more fun or memorable efforts. Jeanette Roxborough is a capable action lead, though again, I wish she had more to work with and perhaps some glossier, more high impact fight scenes to shine in as well. The cast also includes Louis Mandylor, Chris Mulkey, Bridgett Riley, and Spice Williams-Crosby.