Jamie Bell stars in Donnybrook as Jarhead Earl, an ex-Marine with a penchant for violence. He wants one last bare-knuckled victory to gain enough cash to escape with his family from their impoverished circumstances. When Earl comes back to find Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo) and sister Delia Angus (Margaret Qualley) selling drugs to his wife, they get into an altercation, setting off a series of events that sees the two men inevitably meeting for confrontation.
Thus begins a kind of revenge road trip, where various alliances are formed and broken. A journey up a river leads to a heart of darkness where Nazis, gun-runners and a barbed-wire cage provide the final infernal destination.
Bell is fine as Earl, providing enough taut rage to keep things interesting. Grillo, meanwhile, is always a force of nature, a hardly subtle but nonetheless effective giant fueled by rage. Qualley’s take is a bit more nuanced, with her own misguided affections making the film even more disturbing than it might first appear to be.
Unfortunately, the inevitability of the story succumbs to feelings of predictability. Even when real competence is shown by character behavior, in other scenes a few minutes later mistakes are made for narrative purposes simply in order for there to be more story to tell. This makes the whole thing feel lazy, as if only at times when needed are these individuals allowed to fail in such spectacular ways that they doom themselves. It’s a frustrating thing to witness, as if all the elements stacked up in favor of Donnybrook come crashing down every time an overt, cheapened moment takes place.
With a bit more grit and intelligent plotting, this could have been a truly great film. Instead, Donnybrook is a mess marred by narrative laziness. The movie is only saved by the committed performance of its lead.