The agreeably pulpy Canadian action thriller Braven finds man-mountain Jason Momoa — our one-time Conan, now and future Aquaman and eternal horselord Khal Drogo — getting to conquer the last world left to him. Here, he’s playing an everyday sort of dude. At least, he does for 40 minutes or so, give or take an early barroom dust-up that his character, a family-man lumberjack, vaults into like a WWE star leaping into a tag-team match. Also complicating the ordinariness: That family man is named “Joe Braven,” which pretty much guarantees that his weekend away with his father (Stephen Lang) will involve a drug lord’s kill squad storming the family cabin. Joe Braven! Years ago, on her old sitcom, Ellen DeGeneres’ character sat rapt and tense in a movie theater, shouting at the screen, “Run, Die Hard, run!” Somebody invite her to see Braven.
You might enjoy it, too, if you enjoy movies about being pushed too far, having a particular set of skills and seeing bad guys get offed in inventive ways. Any movie badass worth your dollar will bring a distinctive touch to the slaughter. Braven, while not quite an original, comes from the handyman school of John McClane or Denzel Washington’s The Equalizer. He’ll scope out a room, gather up some tools (fire poker, rope, plushy toy, bear trap), and leave you a couple of moments to puzzle over the grisly ends to which they’ll be set.
He also hails from the reluctant-killer school. At first, after he and Papa Braven discover the danger they’ve happened into, our hero tries to reason with the drug lord (Garret Dillahunt), working up a thoughtful solution that solves everyone’s problems. The drug lord demurs, shots get fired at the Family Braven, and just like that, we’re cued to cheer all the kills to come. It’s a filmmaking lesson that dates back to the silents, one that Irving Thalberg imposed upon the Marx Brothers between Duck Soup — in which Harpo and Chico jack up the business of a lemonade vendor for no discernible reason — and A Night at the Opera, in which we’re assured that the bullies and swells they terrorize have it coming. There’s time to wonder, as Momoa huffs across the peaks of Newfoundland, what it says about us as a species that so many of us relish the dramatization of acts of terrible cruelty but first demand narrative justification. Another thought to consider: Did they name it Braven because it sounds sort of like Taken?
Not that my mind wandered much. Director Lin Oeding is a stunt performer who has helmed TV episodes and here makes his feature debut. Here, he demonstrates acuity with big rigs and big lugs, with headlights cutting through snowfall, with local diners and bars scraped free of romance, with the sinking sense that a bad situation is getting worse. He can get a laugh from you — one beardo bad guy gets to snarl at Momoa, “You get your Sasquatch ass back in there” — but he never seems to worry that anyone might find his scenes of anguished family drama funny. Before they’ve realized that armed villains are at that moment closing in on them, Braven and his father press through a tough conversation about how to handle the old man’s flights of dementia — might they need to talk about assisted living? Behind them, above the cabin’s fireplace, hang a pair of axes. You might groan or make some crack about Anton Chekhov’s hatchet or bemoan the standard action-movie lie that in the carnage to come, these men will presumably come to understand each other — that killing solves our problems and brings us closer to each other. But Braven doesn’t care if you smirk. Braven braves the hell on.
Like The Commuter’s Jaume Collet-Serra, Oeding is admirably committed to pinning down his hero’s emotional state before the killing starts. Early scenes of Braven joking with his wife, Stephanie (Jill Wagner), or tucking his daughter (Sasha Rossof) into bed play more convincingly than such moments tend to in lesser thrillers, where these relationships get established only to set up the later kidnappings. But watch Momoa boop the little girl’s nose, pull her close and blow raspberries on her neck — this looks like a dad and his daughter. Later, of course, she will figure into the action, as will Stephanie. I’m happy to report that none of it will play it out in the usual ways.
The domestic scenes aren’t throwaways, but Oeding does perk up as violence looms. Two early outbursts, before the cabin standoff, break the spell of small-town ordinariness. These quick scenes play as too slickly brutal, too professionally choreographed, especially as they’re set in what look like actual Newfoundland businesses. (Yes, the bar’s decor is “Tragically Hip poster.”) The main event, though, is expertly handled. It’s tense and well-paced, varied in its scenarios, clear in its geography, shot and edited so that we can see who is doing what to whom — and so that we can anticipate what everyone’s next move might be. That anticipation makes the payoffs all the more wickedly pleasing. Surprise is most satisfying when you have expectations, when you’ve been given a breath to wonder, “Hey, why is Braven sticking the business ends of all those fireplace tools into the flames?”
Any cheapjack action movie can get a crowd to cheer at its shock kills. It’s the best ones that persuade us that there’s a clear chain-of-events physical logic at play — that find suspense in one action leading inevitably to another. Here’s a special shout-out to the nonsense with the cliff, the cord and the four-wheeler, the kind of perfectly executed, totally mad Coyote v. Roadrunner action beat that makes me wish I could rewind in the movie theater.