Movie Review: The Bravest (2019)

A fiery Chinese flag-waving disaster movie inspired by the Xingang Port Oil Spill of 2010, The Bravest serves up intense, eye-catching cinematography and incredible special effects, but sadly, little else for us to connect with from start to finish.

Following an exciting introduction to our two main characters after they battle a blaze at a hotpot restaurant that goes tragically wrong, Fire Brigade Captain Jiang Liwei (Xiaoming Huang) is left disgraced and replaced by his second-in-command Ma Weiguo (Jiang Du). It doesn't take long however, for director Tony Chan to put us in the line of fire once again.

Culling from author Bao'erji Yuanye's book Tears Are the Deepest Water, which was based upon interviews with 188 Chinese firefighters, the film trades Xingang (or Tianjin) for the fictional northern seaport of Bingang, where a pipeline explosion threatens to not only wipe out all eight million of the area's residents but also cause catastrophic effects to the environment. As the spill from the blast reaches nearby tanks of crude oil and chemicals, the firemen get to work, putting life and limb on the line as they try to close the two open valves still flowing toward a large tanker.

More than eager to prove himself, perhaps as both a form of penance for losing a man under his command at the restaurant fire as well as a way to confront his new diagnosis of PTSD (which his supervisor told him made him unsuitable for action), Captain Jiang Liwei grabs a smoke before he jumps to it. Fighting to complete 8,000 manual rotations to seal off the tanker for good so that his men's firefight isn't in vain, as the captain tries to withstand the enveloping flames, the men advance toward the blaze, trying their best to contain it even when their water runs out.

Layering other heroics on top of the captain's —  as is often the case with disaster movies — whenever Chan abandons the fire to follow the captain's family in their quest to leave the port and reach safety, the pace of the film screeches to a dead halt. Treating an asthma inhaler like a gun we see early on that's bound to go off later on, we anticipate one of the melodramatic complications facing the captain's wife and son before they even set out on their journey to get the hell out of Bingang.

From a woman in labor to an engaged firefighter couple whose relationship off the clock is used to try to add more melodramatic significance to the roles they play when they're on the job, Yonggan Yu and Chao Wang's predictable script checks off all of the boxes that we would expect as they aim to humanize the proceedings but The Bravest remains stale. Additionally telegraphing events to come with its loud, insistent, bombastically intrusive score, the film makes it obvious which members of the cast will live or die shortly after they're introduced.

Stopping to fight the fires just long enough to give a few rousing speeches about duty and sacrifice, and using every moment available to insert a meaningful military salute to one another, it's clear that the film's heart is in the right place. Yet just when it lets us in enough to care about a character's plight, we leave the scene and immediately jump to another half-baked, underdeveloped subplot.

Preferring to talk at us rather than to us, by the time we get to a key third act sequence where the fiance of the fire inspector is supposed to keep the water flowing to the fires by diving into the sea, despite wanting him to succeed, it's hard to overlook the fact that we have little to no idea what's really going on. Similarly baffled by the number of times the guys just turn their backs to the fire to chat or the way that we go from a harrowing scene where the pregnant lady's water breaks to suddenly assuming they're okay because we're now in a hospital, between the hopscotching edits and the sparse script, The Bravest needs a serious overhaul.

Obviously inspired by both Ron Howard's seminal Backdraft as well as disaster movies of the Roland Emmerich variety, even though we'd love to be more invested in the goings on, when it comes to the genre, storytelling problems are nothing new. So for this new Chinese film, I'll go ahead and translate. As long as you're not interested in pesky things like who the supporting characters are outside of the two minutes we see them onscreen or what they're doing and why — for its claustrophobic, red hot visuals that bring heat to your TV — The Bravest is thrilling filmmaking from a technical perspective alone.

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