I was searching for a movie to watch and, as happens more often than not, I decided to take a flyer on a direct to video action movie. Most times this ends up being a horrible decision (I tried watching Gina Carano's latest effort, Scorched Earth (2018) the other day. I lasted about ten minutes before I couldn't take anymore and shut it off), but I never learn. I keep going back to that well, hoping to get lucky and find the gem I'm searching for. I was expecting another disaster when I chose Braven (2018), but I got lucky and struck action movie gold! Braven (2018) is the latest action movie starring Jason Momoa. Up to this point in his career, I haven't quite been able to figure Momoa out. He's had a nice TV career that hit its peak with Game of Thrones, and his popularity in that show led to a starring role as the titular character in Conan the Barbarian (2011). While that movie was mostly a disappointment, it did make me think Momoa had a bright future in action movies. He followed that up with a smaller role in Bullet to the Head (2012). Again, that movie was decent at best. Momoa, however, was a scene stealer as an intimidating henchman, and he got to be a part of one of the manliest scenes of all time, an axe battle against the king of action, Sylvester Stallone! That scene solidified it for me. In my mind, there was no way Momoa wouldn't become the next big thing in action movies. Unfortunately, since then, he has had some badass TV roles (Frontier, The Red Road) but he hasn't really done anything in action movies. Until Braven, that is. Part of what makes this movie work is its very simple plot. Weston (the first of many dumb names in this movie), A man who works for Braven as a truck driver, decides to transport some drugs to make a little extra money on the side. When Weston's semi truck tips over in the winter storm, he and his partner in crime decide to stash the drugs in Braven's hunting cabin which is conveniently close to where they crashed. Even more conveniently, as all of that was happening, Braven decides to take his father, Linden (another dumb name), to that same cabin to have a heart to heart talk about Linden's increasingly frequent episodes of dementia. Just as Braven and Linden find out Braven's young daughter was hiding in the car and is at the cabin with them, the drug kingpin, Kassen (I swear I'm not making these names up!) shows up wanting his drugs and wanting to kill everyone in the cabin. Obviously, Braven isn't going to let that happen. One thing that separates Braven from other generic action movies is its characters, and the cast that brings those characters to life. Obviously, the most important is Joe Braven himself, and Momoa absolutely nails it in the role! Aside from his large, intimidating stature, and the effortless toughness, charisma, and physicality that he brings to the action scenes, he also shows a softer side and a warmth during the slower, more emotional scenes involving him and his family. The result is a down to earth character that we can relate to, and somebody who is 100% believable taking on the small army of drug dealers. Aside from the hero, the next most important character in an action movie is the villain. Many of these low budget action movies fall into mediocrity because of their boring, generic, uninspired villains, but that isn't the case with Braven. Let's be honest, a drug dealer trying to get his drugs back and wanting to kill the people getting in his way is not an original idea. Not by a long shot. However, Garret Dillahunt, veteran TV actor (Deadwood, Raising Hope) and underrated supporting actor (Looper (2012), No Country for Old Men (2007)), turns what could be, and honestly what should be, a forgettable character into one of my favorite action movie villains in recent memory. Dillahunt has had success as both a serious dramatic actor, as well as a hilarious comedic actor, so he's one of the only actors who could pull off this role the way he did. He plays seriously enough to make the unhinged sociopathic drug dealer as intimidating as he needs to be to square off against Momoa, but he is a good enough comedic actor to inject some subtle humor into the character. The result is a memorable villain that is fun as hell to watch.
Two others that were impressive in their smaller roles are Stephen Lang (Tombstone (1993), Don't Breathe (2016)) as Braven's father, Linden, and Jill Wagner (Lots of TV credits, but I've never seen her in anything before) as Braven's wife, Stephanie. As Braven's father suffering from dementia, Lang displays a vulnerability that helps make the emotional scenes more effective, but you know when the time comes, he's going to be ready to rock and get in the fight. I mean, he's still Stephen Lang. There's no way he wasn't going to be a badass.
As for Stephanie, once she realizes her daughter is with Braven and Linden at the cabin and they are in trouble, she calls the police and speeds to the cabin. My first thought on her was, "Oh great, as if Braven didn't already have enough problems on his hands, now his wife is going to get caught by the drug dealers and make his life even harder!" But I was wrong. Instead, she is tough and she isn't about to just sit around and let her family get hurt. She fights with everything she has to defend her child and help Braven any way she can. I absolutely loved that she didn't become just another cliche action movie damsel in distress. She might not have the physical fighting ability of her husband, but that didn't stop her from doing her part.
Admittedly, first-time director Lin Oeding doesn't bring anything new to the action genre. What he does bring is an obvious sense of respect and understanding of action and stunt work, due to his long career as a stuntman and stunt coordinator. This is a throwback, old-school action movie. There is no CGI at all in this movie. Instead, it's just badass people defending themselves with whatever they can find against some well-armed drug dealers. The action is effective for a few reasons. First, the stunt work is fantastic and its filmed in a way that makes the movie feel grounded and plausible. Everything from the shootouts to the fist fights is filmed clearly and coherently. The camera hardly ever shakes to give a false sense of chaos like you see in most action movies these days. Second, the ways that Braven manages to kill the multiple henchmen are varied and entertainingly creative. It almost has a horror movie aspect to it, in the sense that each kill is more fun and entertaining than the last. Braven uses everything at his disposal in the cabin to dispatch of the henchmen from moonshine Molotov cocktails, to red-hot fire stokers, to axes and a bow and arrows. Once he is outside the cabin, the kills remain fun as he uses his snowy mountain environment and ATVs to his advantage. This awesome assortment of kills keeps the movie from getting stale and will have action fans pumping their fists in celebration.
The best kill, by far, comes at the end. I don't want to spoil it here because I want you all to see it for yourselves, but I will tell you it involves a bear trap and it is one of the coolest and manliest main villain kills I've seen in a long time! Before I rate this, I'll admit; It's not perfect. It's a very low budget movie with a completely unoriginal plot. But everyone involved brings their A-game and the result is a fun, fast-paced actioner that is loads better than anybody could have anticipated. Braven isn't going to blow you away, but it will give you a fun hour and a half that will have you cheering the inventive, badass kills and rooting for this strong family to come out on top. If you are looking for a movie to bring back the feelings of the action movies the 80s and 90s brought you, look no further than this one (Maybe it’s the snowy mountain setting, but Braven especially reminds me of Stallone's 1993 action classic, Cliffhanger). RATING: 7.5 out of 10