Only the Brave Review
Backdraft meets Everest
Joseph Kosinski,director of Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, tries something a little more grounded with Only the Brave, a character-driven true tale of firefighting bravery.Having created a couple of tremendous audiovisual experiences, neither of which particularly delivered as expected at the Box Office, Kosinski shifts his focus to a based on a true story tale of a group of trainee firefighters who rise to front line glory battling wildfires in Arizona. With a strong, well-paced narrative more concerned with characters than action, the director expands his skillset and lets his cast shine in the well-developed roles even if, ultimately, the biographical nature of the story prevents him from fully delivering the visceral component he's previously been known for.Only the Brave - a painfully generic title which was probably only slightly preferable to the more apt but also more comically-slanted Hotshots - follows Josh Brolin's veteran firefighter, who seeks help from Jeff Bridges' fire chief to get his team the rank of 'Hotshots' so that they can battle the fires on the front line. Amidst the experienced teammembers we have a cocky Taylor Kitsch and a stalwart James Badge Dale standing out, although the equilibrium is shaken by the introduction of Miles Teller's drug addict deadbeat, desperate to prove himself a worthy father of the child he never expected to have.
Taking its time to plot out the workings of the team before they graduate, in tandem with Teller's arc to hit rock bottom before he rises to change his life, Only the Brave will likely defy any expectations of it being just another Backdraft wannabe, even if Brolin's head honcho is every bit modeled on Kurt Russell's lead in the Ron Howard action-drama, right down to the strange bond with fire, almost preternaturally feeling the intentions of the beast, and haunted by the indelible memory of a burning bear running through a blazing inferno. It also, albeit more organically, charts the somewhat formulaic rise of a newcomer within the ranks of a more experienced crew, with resistance and bullying from the tightly-knit group, before the newbie can prove his worth.
Ultimately, though, Kosinski's gambit on spending more time developing his characters - in particular Teller's druggie newbie - pays off, giving these people some real depth and dimension, which leaves their exploits, however predictable, as feeling that much more natural. Miles Teller certainly shines in the role (a far, far better choice than William Baldwin for the equivalent role in Backdraft), at times even reminiscent of a young Newman, and whilst this kind of part doesn't quite have the same power and resonance as his defining role in Whiplash - he could have done with a little more internal struggle along the way - it is a far better part, and consequently far better performance, than anything the likes of Fantastic Four could derive.
Kosinski lets the cast shine even if the biographical story prevents him from delivering the visceral component he's known for
Kitsch and James Badge Dale are also reliable supporting players, although they're pretty familiar with this territory - Lone Survivor and 13 Hours, respectively, have prepared them for this kind of role and they do it with ease. It's nice to see Bridges let go of a the reins a little bit too, offering some emotional depth when called upon (his near-breakdown in tears is effectively shocking) but also getting to live it up with a couple of live song tracks too. The wives could have easily been shadow players, and Andie MacDowell - although it's nice to see her back - comes close to being forgotten in her role, but Jennifer Connelly strikes out, becoming a key player in this piece. She's absolutely tremendous (and still desperately stunning) as Josh Brolin's unflinchingly loyal wife, who has to fight her own demons whilst trying to battle the fire for ownership of her husband. Ultimately, though, it's Brolin's baby, and just like Russell shined in Backdraft, Brolin gets his moment of glory here as the absolute backbone of this film.
Bringing his longterm composer Joe Trapanese along to do the score, as well as his cinematographer Claudio Miranda - both of whom worked with him on making the unforgettable audio and visual components of his audiovisual masterworks Tron: Legacy and Oblivion - Only the Brave does have an impressive sense of scale and a resonant feel to its score, even if, as aforementioned, it's potential to wow is somewhat tempered by the biographical limitations of the story. Ultimately, where Kosinski should consider taking some liberties with his subject matter, and giving his characters (and thus the audience) something to really rise up against, he holds back and sticks to the facts. This leaves it a very earnest tribute to these real-life heroes, but one which oddly, by following the true path too closely, doesn't always give them the legendary status that they arguably deserve. Still, it's a last hurdle misstep in what is otherwise a tremendous run for the filmmaker, delivering the goods with cast, characters and narrative, and providing both genuine drama and palpable heart in this worthy true life tale.
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