Terry Savage, a marine forced into criminal activity, gets offered a plea deal to avoid significant punishment. The mission: infiltrate one of the country’s most dangerous prisons and uncover its corruption. Terry’s pursuits lead him into a vicious underground fighting ring guided by the abusive Warden Lucas in The System.
Hardened stories of dysfunctional prison life can often offer intimate dives into how people disenfranchised by society regain their strength and independence. The System does not pertain to that focus. While marketed as a heavy-handed drama, the film defines its own playful, 80s action movie frequency and is made all the better for its bare-knuckle brawler approach.
Writer/director Dallas Jackson, who crafted a similar action throwback with the so-so Welcome to Sudden Death, continues to evolve into a confident filmmaker. Working under stringent budget restrictions, Jackson masks his limited assets with his assured craftsmanship behind the camera. Each brawl evokes hard-hitting impact and taunt excitement, showcasing a flurry of well-coordinated punches through effectively jagged camera movements. There is also a lot of effort put into creatively enhancing the film’s series of prison brawls, including an emphasis on kung-fu taught by one of Terry’s wise prison friends.
I can already see critics groaning at The System for favoring its action techniques over challenging meditations on the corrupt prison system. In contrast, I would say Jackson manages both aspirations with enough success. The film’s straight-faced tone never feels too self-serious, often depicting a colorful array of personalities and its fair share of amusing pratfalls. Jackson’s script never offers any particularly revelatory insights on unjust prison life and racial inequities, but the filmmaker does soundly prop up both concepts through his amusing B-movie energy.
A skilled cast helps tremendously in treading The System’s finite tonal delivery. Star Tyrese Gibson doesn’t receive the credit he deserves as an actor. As Terry, Gibson imbues commanding gravitas and emotional vulnerabilities as he depicts the character’s burdened post-service life. His performance provides a crucial dramatic center to the narrative while impactfully grounding the material in real-world sentiments. Supporting players like Terrance Howard as Terry’s sage mentor and Lil Yatchy as a personable fight-night MC inject much-needed life into the proceedings. I also can’t forget Entourage star Jeremy Piven, who chews the scenery with affectionate glee as the prison’s corrupt warden. Each actor’s sincerity helps tremendously in propping up the film’s melodrama.
The System isn’t without its struggles. Jackson can often overcompensate to enhance his material, including the inclusion of grating score choices that awkwardly subtract from the film’s gritty environment. The film also endures some inconsistencies in execution, with a few stiff dialogue exchanges and a lack of nuance ultimately limiting the material’s upside.
Still, The System discovers its comfort zone as an agreeable action throwback. I look forward to seeing Jackson continue to build upon his initial filmmaking successes.
The System is now playing on VOD services.