Review by Cole Groth
Every year, America is plagued with dozens of cheap action flicks with a C-list, or previously A-List, actor trudging along for a paycheck. For a good reason, Bruce Willis and Nicholas Cage have tarnished their reputations by appearing in these films. Typically, these directionless films offer little to say or have no heart. While The System bolsters some cheap action and a series of one-note characters, it manages to have a decent message and a solid emotional punch, making it an unusually brilliant film in what would otherwise be bargain bin material.
The System follows a former Marine and father-turned-criminal, Terry Savage (Tyrese Gibson), a man who gets caught up in a drug bust and is forced to go undercover in prison, revealing the dark world of the private prison system. As he gets further into his sentence, he gets involved in an underground fighting ring, which is enabled by the regulation-less nature of private prisons. The writer/director, Dallas Jackson’s script, makes sure to spotlight the corruption that goes on within these prisons, and it works rather well. Jackson’s decision to film inside a real jail adds to a sense of realism that’s very important in a film like this. There’s not much subtlety to be found within the 97-minute runtime, but sometimes messages like these don’t need to be very subtle.
The main draw for audiences is the action. In the walls of the plain-looking prison lies a dungeon where the inmates meet and bet on a simple fighting match between various prisoners and guards. It’s well-choreographed for the most part and is wildly fun at times, in part to Derrick Hodge’s thumping score and David Conk’s choreography. Each fight is hosted by Joker (Lil Yachty), a deranged man with this Mad Max energy in the way he loves violence. Each punch looks pretty good, but some very bad foley choices undermine the realism. A simple punch will be followed up with a crunch that sounds like somebody’s ribs have just exploded. It’s easy to overlook these poor stylistic choices in the grand scheme of things, but they’re noticeable moments of weak filmmaking. The simple fight sequences are rather well done, but the large-scale, much deadlier action scenes are sloppy and uninteresting. There are far too many films that want extreme action for the sake of entertainment, but it doesn’t make the film that much better.
Terry is fighting for his freedom to see his daughter again, making him a fascinating character to follow. However, Tyrese Gibson’s performance, like other actors, isn’t able to do justice to these theoretically complex characters. Terrence Howard’s performance as a prison veteran is one of the best, but he’s not explored enough to be a fully-fleshed out supporting character. Warden Lucas (Jeremy Piven) suffers from the same problem. He’s not given enough of a story and is a wildly evil man with no real motivations. Piven’s performance accurately reflects the evils of a total psychopath. Still, there’s a missing link drawn by the film’s end because he’s given just enough character development to feel frustratingly undeveloped by the end. Some other characters round out the cast, and they all feel too dull to discuss thoroughly.
There’s a fine line to be drawn between a complex social issue drama and an over-the-top action film, and The System walks this line like a drunkard convincing a cop that they’re sober. It’s sometimes an experience that feels amateur all around, but it has a lot going on that’s impressive. The cinematography is fine, and the editing is fine, but it could be a lot better. One of the best parts about this film was the pacing. It’s a fast, fun, action-driven film with a solid emotional undertone. It importantly focuses on how private prisons are a form of modern slavery and might also satisfy your craving for adrenaline-pumping action.
The System hits theaters on October 28 and VOD on November 4.