Jason Momoa seems made for action movie stardom, and Braven is one of the smaller projects that should help Khal Drogo fans while away the time between Justice League and Aquaman. Braven is directed by Lin Oeding, whose work as a stunt coordinator certainly helped him give the movie some inventively brutal energy at key moments, and the simplicity of its premise serve it well once things get going.
But Braven sure does take a while to get going. Its problems primarily lie in an unwillingness to follow the potential of its premise to a logical crescendo of ludicrous action movie serenity. Instead, there’s a brutally dull and far too sincere first act, introducing us to Momoa’s Joe Braven and his home life, while giving us the thinnest of setups for why such an upstanding guy would ever cross paths with the villains in the first place. That slow burn opening doesn’t really fit with the brutality we get later in the movie, and
Jason Momoa does a fine job with the more sensitive than you might expect tough guy Joe Braven, supervisor at a lumber yard, devoted husband, and father to a young girl. Aside from their modest family home, Joe maintains a getaway cabin up in the mountains. The problem is that his father (Stephen Lang) is suffering from symptoms that resemble early-onset Alzheimer’s, and since he’s still very much capable of getting himself down to the bar and blundering into trouble, that’s complicating things. While you might think it would be difficult to buy Momoa’s magnetic screen presence as an everyman, he’s surprisingly convincing. He and Lang work well together, too, even before the bullets and axes start flying
But what complicates things even further is that one of Joe’s co-workers at the lumber yard is running a side business, using his rig to help run drugs for a dealer (Zahn McClarnon) who is in league with, of course, a much bigger drug kingpin (Garrett Dillahunt). When his truck runs off the road in icy conditions, he opts to store the drugs at Joe’s supposedly empty cabin until they can be delivered to the big man. As you might expect, there’s some confusion when Dillahunt’s villain shows up to collect and finds Joe Braven, his father, and his daughter there in possession of his drugs. As you might expect, he isn’t thrilled.
And that’s when the promised axe-throwing action begins. It takes nearly half the movie’s 90 minute runtime for us to get to the action, and while there are moments of great fun, it’s tough to reconcile it with so much of what came before. Dillahunt makes for a fun (if woefully underdeveloped) villain, a throwback to the kind of vintage action baddie who appears reasonable one moment while shooting one of his underlings to make a point the next. He’s able to deliver lines like “Aw, Joe, what the fuck is your problem, man?” to amusing effect, too.
But Braven never truly goes for it. Its devotion to that far too slow build early on makes you think that the violent payoff we’re always waiting for is going to be more over the top than it actually is. There are some fun, creative kills (Stephen Lang’s elder Braven gets in on the action with those, too), but it’s never as completely bonkers as you probably expect it to be. On the other hand, there is satisfaction to be had in axes and tongs getting heated in a fireplace before they’re deployed on assorted scumbags.
There’s some beautiful photography to be had in the snow covered mountains of Braven‘s Newfoundland locations, but this is no Cliffhanger. And we do indeed get to see Momoa’s Joe Braven whup some serious ass in defense of his tween daughter, but this is no Commando. Momoa devotees will likely find reason to enjoy Braven, and there are certainly worse ways you can spend an hour and a half at this time of year, but this often feels like 45 minutes of story stretched to its breaking point at 90. Momoa proved with his Aquaman performance in Justice League that he can elevate a thin story with his charismatic presence, but this particular working class superhero deserves a little more to work with.