Bravest, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/11/19 23:10:26

"Heroic firefighter stories are the same (and exciting!) the world over"
3 stars (Average)

It seems like it would be hard to go too far over the top with a movie about heroic firefighters facing a massive but somewhat plausible danger, but "The Bravest" gives it a shot. The wall-to-wall firefighting action is more or less on point, but filmmaker Tony Chan Kwoik-Fai has trouble letting the heroism stand on its own, and there's sometimes an awful thin line between the moments that successfully make the audience stand up and cheer and the ones that try and get a snicker instead.

As it opens, Jiang Liwei (Huang Xiaoming) is the captain of the Bingang fire department's special response squadron, personally running into a burning hot pot restaurant to rescue a little girl in the top floor apartment - but also taking the fall when the fire flares up again after apparently being out. He's assigned to a smaller station while second-in-command Ma Weiguo (Du Jiang) takes his old job, and his psych evaluation suggests that he should retire as a result of his PTSD. A fire at the port will put all hands on deck - Jiang, Ma, Fire Inspector Wang Lu (Yang Zi), and her fiancé Xu Xiaobin (Ou Hao). Of principal concern is Tank A01, a hundred thousand cubic meters of crude oil, across the street from chemical tanks containing benzene, xylene, and cyanide. If it explodes, it could wipe out this city of eight million and create a far-reaching environmental catastrophe.

This seems to undersell the danger a bit; the fictional city of Bingang appears to be modeled on Tianjin, a major port with a population of twelve million. It is kind of odd that Chan and co-writer Yu Yonggan used a made-up setting for a film built to be one of three major flag-waving films coming out in China over the next few months, but there is only so much of this potential disaster that can be blamed on foreign negligence (though, make no mistake, that does appear to be the proximate cause of all this); you can make all firefighters heroes without implying that some actual city's public servants have been slacking on the job - or that someone like this film's harbor master would withhold information. It's an odd dance that must take place when making movies in an environment hyper-sensitive to that sort of thing, and truth be told, Chan and Yu handle the fact that people in the institutions one wishes to exalt must occasionally screw up in order to keep the movie going than many trying to do the same manage.

That impulse still hobbles the movie in a lot of ways, really making a hash of any attempt to give the characters any sort of growth and story arc in the middle of this madness and not giving a fair cast a whole lot to do beyond the basics. Most notably, the major flaw Liwei demonstrates in the opening is that he's kind of a glory-hound, throwing himself into the flames rather than directing his team, and then he just spends the rest of the movie throwing himself into the flames, shaming the others around him with his bravery. His PTSD is mentioned, but never actually seen, and there's a moment that plays like it's supposed to resolve a storyline about his new station being a joke, but that never actually plays out. Similarly, Wang Lu and Xu Xiaobin are separated while holding onto a fight they apparently had off-screen, so their most interesting moment is them driving to the scene from having their wedding pictures taken with Wang in her bridal gown; Ma Weiguo starts the movie with a chip on his shoulder but nothing much comes of it. A side-story develops with Jiang's wife and son separated as the city begins to panic.

But most of the time, the focus is on the fire, and despite a filmography that is almost entirely romantic comedies, Chan handles this sort of disaster movie carnage well. He and his team have a real knack for explaining how things work on the fly, giving the audience the lay of the land, and both layering on added dangers that have the audience saying "well, that's not good" on a regular basis and showing the means of dealing with it. They mostly pace it well so the fact that fighting this fire is in many ways persistent chipping away rather than choosing new directions and relying on plot twists doesn't get old, and the staging and effects work is pretty darn high-quality. Chan does like his slow-motion to underscore when a particularly impressive bit of effects work intersects with an especially heroic moment. I must admit to being somewhat curious as to how it looks on premium screens in China; enough flies toward the viewer to certainly suggest 3D was a consideration, and it was apparently also shot at twice the usual frame rate, which has a bad reputation but could create interesting effects.

When Jiang and Ma and the rest are fighting the fires, a lot of the film's problems fade into the background, only becoming an issue when it stops to have the entire cast salute the fallen while everything is still burning around them or upon hitting an incredibly abrupt ending - or when an attempt to set up a heroic sacrifice plays as misguided physical comedy. There are moments when the filmmakers should probably be more consciously wrestling with the idea of what makes heroes in these situations. The filmmakers know that certain things will play on a person's emotions without fail, but seldom take a moment to step back and wonder if that's the best way to actually do the job, both in terms of stopping fires and having people survive.

It makes for a frequently-exhilarating movie that nevertheless comes across as being just as ham-handed as the military adventures that have been coming out of China over the past few years, and in some ways it's hard to fault any of those films for that - they do the job they set out to do, and with style. "The Bravest" is a fine big-screen spectacle and not particularly aiming to be otherwise.

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