Wednesday, January 31, 2018

'Braven' (2018) Movie Review



He’s a big-time cinematic superhero, playing Aquaman in the DC movie universe, but I have to say, I think Jason Momoa is best suited to low-budget, direct-to-video-style action fare. Sure, he’s a ripped Adonis of a human being, but he also has a relatable, everyman quality. And this is on full display in Braven, a solid, reasonably entertaining, if unremarkable new noir-inspired Canadian thriller. It scratches a very particular itch for those longing for the types of beefy-father-protects-his-brood pictures Schwarzenegger and Stallone turned out in the ‘80s.


Momoa plays Joe Braven, and the script by Michael Nilon and Thomas Pa’a Sibbett loves to have characters say his full name at every given opportunity. This includes close friends and his wife, the villain, and even Joe Braven himself. We get it, it’s the name of the movie.



Joe Braven is a good guy, a real salt of the earth type. He’s a logger with a perfect, archery-teacher wife (Jill Wagner) and perfect, adorably precocious daughter (Sasha Rossof). But there’s drama with his father (Stephen Lang), who, after an on-the-job accident, has trouble remembering things and finds himself in various kinds of trouble. Further problems arise when a drug runner, stranded by a nasty winter storm, hides his stash at Joe’s remote, isolated cabin. Before long, Joe Braven finds himself embroiled in a vicious, life-and-death battle to protect his family.

Braven takes its time getting to where it’s going. The first act lays the groundwork with the drug dealers and all, but the primary focus falls on Joe and the rest of the Braven clan, and their trials and tribulations. Joe’s relationship with his wife and daughter is simple and flat—he loves his wife, he loves his daughter, they adore him, he’s a good family man, that’s all there is to it.



The relationship with his father adds a touch more texture. It’s the heart of the script and where any legitimate emotion lies. We watch Joe struggle to watch his father deteriorate—in the manliest way possible, he chops wood late at night to clear his heard. We also see his dad try to wrap his head around the same issues. These are stoic, woodsy men, not prone to broadcasting their feelings, but Momoa and Lang do a solid job portraying their emotions without being obvious or playing to the cheap seats. Both have an authentic grounded streak that serves them well here.

Once that’s established, however, Braven mostly pushes it to the side to make way for the bad guys. It sets up Joe as a normal guy who just wants to do right by his family. Then the script tosses him directly into a situation where he’s in way over his head when Joe and his father find themselves trapped in their cabin, surrounded by drug kingpin Kassen (Garret Dillahunt) and his goons.



Director Lin Oeding, making his feature debut—he’s directed a number of TV episodes, but this is his first film—mixes in wide shots of the stunning, spare Canadian wilderness to drive home the isolation, though it never takes anyone long to reach the cabin. And when it comes to the action, the stunt coordinator turned helmer—he’s worked on everything from Batman v Superman and Logan to Rushmore—has a strong grasp of staging and shooting. Even an early bar fight shows he knows what he’s doing in this realm.

When it comes to balancing the various plot threads, and there are many, Braven isn’t as competent or confident. There are essentially three blocks: family life, surrounded by drug dealers, running around in the woods. Oeding and the script do a decent job of establishing the premise. It’s a noir-ish, wrong place, wrong time, normal guy trapped in a horrific situation, kind of story. When we first encounter Kassen, he presents a chilling antagonistic force, similar to Dillahunt’s role in Justified—calm, cold, brutal. It’s a slow-burn opening that makes you care about the protagonist while strategically maneuvering him into harm’s way. But once the foundation is poured, the rest doesn’t hold up quite as well.



As the villains creep up on the cabin and Joe and his father gradually realize the dire nature of the situation, there’s a palpable tension. But once the narrative hits a certain point, it eschews those elements for more generic action beats. As mentioned earlier, it turns into characters running around in the snow in a modestly taut game of cat and mouse.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s fun enough, but it’s nothing more than paint-by-numbers action. Even Kassen’s guys, who begin with a military precision, amount to nothing but cardboard-cut-out goons. There are some nice flourishes, like a flaming hatchet fight, and Momoa certainly has the physicality to pull off this style of action. And as someone who immediately scans his surroundings for things to potentially use in just this type of scenario, I appreciate the scenes scoping out the cabin for improvised weapons. But the finished product just doesn’t stand out.



Eventually, the noir trope of bad luck and crossed paths goes from unfortunate coincidence to ham-fisted plot contrivance. By the end, pretty much everyone Joe’s ever met in his life winds up at this remote cabin in the woods, to the point where it stretches every last bit of credulity until is snaps like a rubber band. I understand the impulse to do things like have the cops show up, or bring back his wife—it’s a well-meaning attempt to add a female presence to the film and make her more than a damsel in distress, and show off her sweet archery skills—but these moves play clumsy and shoehorned in.

Stripped-down and without much excess fat, Braven delivers more or less exactly what it promises. But while decently entertaining, it could have been something a bit more. Instead of a backwoods Canadian neo-noir, it ultimately becomes another DTV-style actioner. Earnest and modestly fun in a weekend-afternoon-on-cable way, I’m down to see Jason Momoa continue on this path. Not particularly memorable or much more than a momentary distraction, if Momoa wants to churn out one or two of these bad boys between jaunts with the Justice League, I’m game to watch. [Grade: C+/B-]


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