Forty-five minutes into Home of the Brave the movie made its way onto my Worst of the Year list. It could have been placed there within the first fifteen minutes, but I was feeling charitable and decided to give the film a chance to redeem itself. My patience was rewarded with a motion picture that isn’t just bad, it’s abysmal. The fact that this movie was made by people who are supposedly motion picture professionals is astonishing – incompetence drips from every frame of Home of the Brave. If this had been made by some well meaning but ultimately untalented film school kids from Omaha, I might have been more forgiving, but director Irwin Winkler has an Oscar on his shelf from back when he produced Rocky.
Home of the Brave is a message movie, and it’s one in a long line of very earnest, very important films about soldiers coming home. The Best Years of Our Lives and Coming Home might be the best known examples of this genre, both featuring crippled vets trying to come to terms with their experiences and the ways war changed their lives. They were about World War II and Vietnam; Home of the Brave tackles Iraq vets returning to their lives with physical and emotional disabilities, as well a complete inability to act.
While the other films focused mostly on one or two vets, Home of the Brave is part of the post-Crash Hollywood, where any story of social importance must be told through the eyes of a dozen people. Does this approach mean none of the characters get enough screentime to be fully fleshed out? Sure, but director Winkler and first time screenwriter Mark Friedman don’t seem interested in anything but stereotypes and two-dimensional people anyway. The viewer never gets invested in any of the stories of these struggling vets, and the movie never earns the big emotional moments it’s striving for. Jessica Biel has her hand blown off in the war (you can tell she’s really acting because she’s playing crippled, and when someone tells her she’s beautiful she reacts like it couldn’t be true) and she is unable to deal with her ex, who is only trying to help her. This story culminates in a big scene designed to tug at the heart strings but that had me laughing as the guy says, “I guess you only need one hand to push someone away!”
Its’ like a parody of an overly-serious TV movie. Again and again I found myself cracking up at scenes that are meant to be serious and moving – Samuel L Jackson suddenly, in the space of a scene, becomes an alcoholic and tears his son’s lip ring out; another vet goes into road rage mode only to find to his horror that he’s mad at… a pretty lady!; 50 Cent appears in the film.
Actually, I want to take a moment to single out 50 Cent for a performance so miserably bad that it makes his work in last year’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ look like some kind of Brando shit. It’s not just his mostly inaudible mumbling or lack of emoting that makes this stand out as one of the worst performances of the fledgling century, it’s the deadness in the guy’s eyes. There’s nothing going on behind that beefy, immobile face. 50 Cent’s visage is a blank slate upon which we can all project the accumulated dumbness of our nation. He should play a wooden Indian in a future film.
Also worthy of being singled out for special contempt is Samuel L Jackson, aka the black Christopher Walken. As in if you meet this guy’s quote he’ll star in your vacation videos. I don’t doubt that Jackson got involved with this film not just because a gambling debt keeps him working feverishly, but also because he actually believed there was something of worth here. The question is, when did he realize this was a piece of shit movie and begin phoning it in? I suspect it may have been the scene when he is talking to Kung Fu Grip Jessica Biel, whose fake fake hand seems to reach down to her knees. She’s totally emoting her little tiny heart out (and she’s seated, because she doesn’t want her ass to be the focus of the scene because she’s proving herself as an actor. Didn’t you see that she’s playing crippled!) and the dialogue is so bad, so false, so obviously written by someone whose biggest trauma in the last thirty years was getting a bad seat at The Ivy, that the scene must have just broken Jackson’s spirit.
I almost feel bad for Biel, though – she’s obviously game to make a go of it in the “serious” side of things, even if that’s not where her talents lie. And for the record, her talents don’t just lie in her ass – she has a charming screen presence and good basic movie acting skills – she’s just not suited for big emotions and broken characters. And sadly her director and writer failed her from the start. There’s a scene where, after having a very hard time adjusting to life at home, Biel meets another vet and they bond over their experiences in Iraq and back in the States. The dialogue doesn’t register as things people would say to each other; rather the whole thing feels like Friedman had outlined what ideas he wanted each character to get across and then forgot to actually flesh them out beyond bullet points.
It was at the forty five minute or so mark that one of the vets (for the sake of the truly masochistic I won’t tell you which one) sort of accidentally ends up taking a bunch of hostages. It’s such a patently stupid scene that it would be worthy of plaudits in a cheap exploitation film, one where the vets come home unhinged and wreak havoc. But are we really supposed to sit in the theater and be concerned about a possible rash of vet-related hostage-takings? Is this really part of the “message” of this message movie? When I realized that this movie was just that dumb, that thoughtless, that devoid of any grasp of reality, Home of the Brave earned its comfortable Worst spot.
The problem (well, one of the problems. This movie has more problems than it has frames of film) is that Home of the Brave is serving two masters. It’s trying to be a little, character based message film but it’s being made by Hollywood hacks who decide to open the film with a huge firefight where most of the leads are injured more or less simultaneously. It’s a poor man’s Blackhawk Down, and that just doesn’t jive with what I read about Iraq every day. It seems like you’re much more likely to get crippled when your convoy drives by an Improvised Explosive Device on the side of the road. To be fair, Biel loses her hand to an IED, but it’s one planted in some alleyway seemingly in preparation for the convoy that would be running away from the massive firefight, complete with RPGs hitting with unerring accuracy. This doesn’t feel like the Iraq war I’m seeing on TV every night, and it’s a disservice to the men and women fighting, dying and really being crippled to glam it up just to start your little message movie off with a bang.
And in the end Home of the Brave is nothing but a disservice to everyone fighting in Iraq (and everyone sitting through it). Winkler wanted to make a “non-political” film honoring the men and women who serve, but he’s made a flat, insipid movie that reminds me of a white American kid telling a Tiananmen Square vet that he can dig oppression because his parents grounded him once.