“Aw Joe, what the fuck’s your problem?”
Mention “action movies” these days, and most people might think superheroes, martial arts, or big-budget sci-fi films, but for some of us the term also recalls the more modestly-priced genre films of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Their plots were simple — a nice but capable person is crossed by bad and slightly less capable people — and only the details changed. Think Charles Bronson in Mr. Majestyk, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, or Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target, and then go lower down the ladder to movies starring Michael Dudikoff, Jeff Wincott, and Michael Jai White.
What I’m saying is that while big blockbusters get most of the attention there’s a lot of fun to be had at the other end of the spectrum where little guys take down big threats for good causes.
Joe Braven (Jason Momoa) is a simple man leading a happy life as a husband, a father, and the head of a logging company. His dad (Stephen Lang) lives with them too, and in an effort to talk to the old man about his worsening memory problems father and son head to a remote cabin for a few days of relaxation and conversation. Someone else got there first, though, leaving a stash of drugs behind, and when they return for their illicit product they’re not too keen on Joe and Linden remaining alive as witnesses. Thrust into a fight he didn’t choose, Joe is forced to defend his family anyway he can. And yes, of course that includes knives, arrows, and a flaming hatchet.
Like I said, nice and simple, and director Lin Oeding and the script (by Michael Nilon and Thomas Pa’a Sibbett) ensure that straightforward plot is a strength. We’re given just enough — more than enough — character work to show us that Joe and his family are good people, and with our affection firmly on their side the ensuing fight becomes one we’re invested in. The film’s split pretty evenly with its first half focused on character, setup, and building tension, but once the first body hits the snow things remain in high gear until the end.
That snow is a big part of the attraction as the wintry landscape of Newfoundland offers an unusual and beautiful backdrop for the action, and the cold comes through the screen leaving viewers with sympathy shivers after Joe takes an unplanned ice water dip. Cinematographer Brian Andrew Mendoza keeps the entirety looking good as daylight action from brawls to gun play are presented clear and bright for our viewing pleasure. Fights are well-choreographed and exude style with the aforementioned fiery hatchet followed with a deadly dousing of hooch being just one of the highlights.
In addition to being likable the family is also highly capable with both Joe’s wife and daughter playing a positive role in the action, and the enemy is equally charismatic thanks mostly to the presence of Garrett Dillahunt as the big bad. It’s great seeing him breathe life into an asshole again after his recent string of nice guys. Momoa meanwhile flexes his winning personality over and over leaving viewers hopeful that his Justice League adventures will continue to leave openings for smaller (and better?) romps too.
Braven is a solid action picture that never tries to overstep its bounds or abilities — well, some green screen gibberish during the climax doesn’t do anyone any favors, but it’s forgivable — and in a world overflowing with big movies heavy on CG and light on charm it’s more than enough.
Braven opens today in limited theatrical release and On Demand.