'Braven' marks the first real turn of interest from Jason Momoa; the first time I’ve seen him play something resembling benign and vulnerable. It’s also the first time I’ve seen him with a shirt on and his strapping biceps covered for most of a film. Director Lin Oeding, in his debut effort, goes for nostalgia and grants Momoa the opportunity to play a character that channels heroes from action films we may have seen in the ‘80s and ‘90s as domesticity and drug runners collide in an otherwise peaceful woodland near the Canadian border.
'Braven' starts by trying to convince us Momoa’s character, Joe Braven, is a warm blue-collar collar family man. It’s quite successful at that. We follow Joe from his jobs at a logging company to his nice home with his wife, Stephanie (Jill Wagner) and their daughter Charlotte (Sasha Rossof). There are hugs, snowball fights, light tussling in the snow and a thousand and one pecks. They’re happy. We get it. In what was a pleasant surprise for a film that says "B-Movie" on the tin, the story becomes more compelling when we meet Joe’s father, Linden (Stephen Lang).
Linden recently suffered an accident which has led to his mental state slowly eroding. It’s the one cloud hovering over this family (before it has to square up against a bunch of drug runners, that is). Linden’s borderline dementia has led to him forgetting basic stuff, which is fine when looking for mere decorations. But when it starts leading to sexual harassment and brawls in a bar, Joe has to reconcile with the fact something drastic has to happen. All this while, the seeds of the central confrontation are being sowed when a substantial amount of drugs are stashed in the Braven family hunting cabin in the woods.
Like most traditional action films, the narrative sometimes leans into preposterous territory. The script does well to make Momoa more layered than expected by infusing some angst brought on by the tough choices that have to be made about his father’s health. But the baddies come around, led Garret Dillahunt’s Kassen, to retrieve the stashed drugs, thus survival and protecting his family becomes Joe’s main concern. Kassen and his henchmen resemble your stereotypical mercenary unit, complete with even snipers but that won’t stop Joe. His grit and savvy will still see him prevail in semi-impossible white man fashion.
There are pacing issues that hold back 'Braven' a little. The action takes place in and around the cabin and it really should run for about 15 to 30 minutes but it basically goes for about an hour. Oeding tries to compensate for this fact by making the action a proper family affair, involving not only Linden but little Stephanie, to put some spice on the stakes, and also promoting Joe’s wife, Charlotte, from just the worrying wife on the other end of the phone. Throw in a bow and arrow and suddenly sudden Charlotte becomes just as lethal as her husband. The film lulls a little when getting all these pieces in place but it gets credit for doing the unconventional.
Outside the father-son relationship, 'Braven' won’t give much to think about, which is fine. It's on the surface a very simple concept. Maybe there is something to the idea that ill-intentioned folk like Kassen will naturally find themselves in a position, by whatever contrivance, to prey on humble people like the Bravens. It’s a primal relationship between good and evil and the simplest exploration of the survival of the fittest sentiment out there.
My only real disappointment with this film is that it never turns into something resembling the first act hunt for Rambo in 'First Blood'. Oeding is very precise with his action and delivers some cool kills with interesting weaponry (watch out for the interesting use of a vicious snare). I would have liked to have seen more done with the snowy woodland setting though. Some fun camouflage for stealth or inventive booby traps would have justified the geographic choices but as it plays out, this film might as well have been set pretty much anywhere with a cliff, some boulders and bad reception.
All in all, 'Braven' will definitely come out of 2018 as one of the better action films. Considering the stuff we encountered in January, it’s pretty much the John Wick of 2018 so far. The direction is competent and never wavering. The emotional grounding is a real boost making this feel, at times, much more than a mere B-Movie. Momoa and Lang deliver strong showings in this regard as the quietly effective score ads a smooth layer of melodrama.
Running a tight 90 minutes, 'Braven' is easy to recommend not only for its intensity but its heart. Only the folk expecting to seem Momoa shirtless will be left disappointed.