Thursday, December 4, 2014

THE BRAVE (1997)

When you read "A FILM BY" attached to a person who's never even directed traffic, and "SPECIAL APPEARANCE BY" with a big name, it can mean only two things. The movie is going to be self-consciously grim with a lot of heavy symbolism, and the big name is onscreen for five minutes. Just warning you. 

If you wonder why a movie starring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando flew under your radar, don't worry. The Brave was never released in America, and is available only as a DVD from Asia. For that, you can thank its critical reception following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. To say that it was negative would be to describe the bombing of Hiroshima as a stern warning. 

Certainly the story should have met the approval of America-loathing cheese-eaters. Raphael, a poor American Indian living with his family in a trailer next to a garbage dump, agrees to be tortured and murdered in exchange for $50,000. In the week he has remaining to live, he tries to make life better for his people. That's it, kimosabe. 

How. Or more like, what the --?
Johnny Depp's first of many mistakes, other than agreeing to direct and rewrite the script, was to cast himself as Raphael. Despite his claims to be part Cherokee or Creek -- disputed by the tribes themselves -- Depp looks as Native American as I do, which is Irish. Long black hair and a bandana do not an Indian make. You wonder why his character just doesn't hop a bus to the nearest modeling agency if he wants to make some serious dough -- he's more beautiful than most women.

Then there's the idea of going through with being murdered. (Every review of The Brave says Raphael has been hired to appear in a snuff movie, but that wasn't made clear to me.) If you received $50,000 and was told return in a week to get sliced, wouldn't you maybe, just maybe, get the the hell out of Dodge?

So just why does Raphael intend to return? Because the snuff movie producer trusts him. Oh, brother. They should have called this movie The Stupid. (In the novel upon which The Brave is based, Raphael is indeed a mentally-defective drunk.)

"Sorry you don't have a shirt, kid.
But you can ride on the merry-go-round!"
OK, so maybe you do have some kind of honor. You hold up your end of the bargain because you're, I dunno, brave. But you have two kids and a wife back in the trailer next to the dump. You'd do right by them. Like opening a savings account with that 50 grand. Getting advice from a good accountant. Buy them some nice clothes instead of the rags they're walking around in.

Nah, you'd do what Raphael does -- build a carnival out of scraps from the dump. Then take your kid grocery shopping, where you load up your carts with junk food and race up and down the aisles, knocking over displays and laughing. Then throw a party for the tribe. Why not just buy a case of Grey Goose while you're at it and call it a day? (One of the party guests, whose character credit is "MAN EATING LEG", is Iggy Pop, who also wrote the score. Because Iggy's just as Indian as Depp.)

Crucifixion symbolism alert!
If you think all this would attract too much attention, well, you just aren't ready to make a movie. Raphael's old partner in crime, Luis, drops by for his share of the score and, when he doesn't find it, beats up the wife and son. Because no self-respecting ex-con like Raphael would ever take revenge for such a thing. 

Depp washes his sins away and, in doing so,
drives all the girls in the audience crazy with lust.


Just kidding! That night, Raphael goes all Mike Tyson on Luis, first biting off his ear, then breaking his neck. And he does all this in front of two hookers. That's OK -- he's going to be murdered tomorrow anyway! But first, he stops off to see his father, who performs a ceremony calling up the spirits to... well, I dunno, the old guy didn't say exactly. Then Raphael goes to town the following morning to get killed. A real popcorn movie, The Brave is.
Last War Dance in Arizona.

Marlon "Special Appearance" Brando plays McCarthy, the snuff movie producer -- if that's what he really is -- as if he never left the set of Apocalypse Now. Pushing himself around in a wheelchair, blowing a harmonica, mumbling his flowery dialogue (self-written by the sounds of it) through suspiciously large, red lips, the gargantuan method actor has apparently been visited by the ghost of Lee Strasberg with the instruction, "You are a talking whale!"

It's commendable, in a way, that by this stage of the game, Brando didn't care what people thought of him. But in comparing his bizarre maundering here to his epic soliloquy in Julius Caesar, you're almost awed by how far down he's come -- or rolled. And yet... you keep yearning for him to reappear in The Brave because his wackiness stands in such stark relief to the rest of the movie.

As for Depp's direction, it's Very Serious. A low shot of Raphael on one side of the screen and a priest on the other, while divided by the church, is a little too on the nose. On the other hand, his choice of keeping The Brave dialogue-free for the first ten minutes is actually interesting. Best of all is the early scene with Raphael applying for a job in a rundown office with faulty fluorescent lighting, a manager with a bad attitude and an unidentified, muttering freak in the corner of the room. (You have to see it to really appreciate it -- kind of like Orson Wells meets David Lynch.) Raphael being led through an increasingly-hellish series of dark hallways and giant elevators to meet McCarthy gives The Brave a genuine, welcome creepiness that never returns. Other than Brando playing harmonica.

Between takes: Brando minus his
hairpiece, while Depp wonders what the hell
he's saying.
In the wake of The Brave's poor reception, Johnny must have thought twice about directing ever again. Certainly the idea of tackling something as serious as this never crossed his mind. From here on out, it was clear sailing with Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Alice in Wonderland, and the Dark Shadows parody. Like his idol Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp is more than willing to go from "most respected actor of his generation" to "human cartoon." Maybe he is The Brave after all.

Confession: My copy of The Brave is 30 minutes shorter than its official two-hour running time. That in itself should have prevented me from writing about it, but probably made me that much more positive about the whole thing.

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