Chuck Koplinski: 'Only the Brave' a powerful testament to heroism

Chuck Koplinski: 'Only the Brave' a powerful testament to heroism

On June 28, 2013, a lightning strike occurred outside Yarnell, Ariz.

Unfortunately, conditions were perfect for the fire to spread rapidly, which it did, threatening the town nearby. Highways were shut down, citizens were evacuated and extra men were brought in to help contain the disaster.

Among them were the Granite Mountain Hotshots out of Prescott, Ariz., a small, tight-knit group whose members had grown close as they had spent two years working to get upgraded from a Type 2 hand crew, used to clean up after fires were put out, to a Type 1 crew that fights fires on the front line. This trip would prove tragic, as 19 of the 20 men in the group died fighting the fire on June 30, devastating their hometown while underscoring the danger these men and their peers face.

A throwback to the films of Howard Hawks, Joseph Kosinski's "Only the Brave" is a fitting tribute to the Granite Mountain Hotshots and a surprisingly poignant one at that. Material such as this is a tricky proposition as there is always a temptation to make the subject larger than life, which can create a sense of skepticism in the process. Kosinski, as well as screenwriters Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, avoid this for the most part, giving us characters with feet of clay, men who feel confident on the job yet are a bit at sea when dealing with personal matters and their families.

Josh Brolin stars as Eric Marsh, a veteran firefighter who pushes for his group to be upgraded to Type 1 status, a goal that doesn't sit well with his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), who rehabilitates abused horses. In similar fashion, Marsh takes Brendan Mcdonough (Miles Teller) under his wing. The young man is struggling to beat his addiction to drugs, provide for his 3-month-old daughter and win back the little girl's mother (Natalie Hall). Putting Mcdonough on the crew doesn't win him any favors with the veterans on the squad, particularly Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), who seems to have a particular grudge against the newcomer.

The bulk of the film deals with the crew's continued training and efforts to get certified, and along the way we see a camaraderie grow between them, the kind that can only come with facing life-or-death situations together. The banter that occurs among them, the acts of kindness they show one another and the way in which they joke to hide their true feelings give these relationships a sense of authenticity. Kitsch, a constantly underrated actor, is particularly good in these moments, a blowhard and tough guy at first who is brought to earth when he runs into trouble with his girlfriend.

The acting is good across the board, with Brolin holding in check the machismo that has marred some of his performances to deliver a fully realized character. Teller is right there with him, step by step, making us believe that Mcdonough is worthy and capable of redemption. The actor fully inhabits this part, shambling about with the gait of a lost man and dead eyes while high, only to seemingly see the world through new eyes once he's sober. Teller takes a subtle, quiet approach to this, and it pays off nicely.

Credit Kosinski and his special-effects crew for recreating the fires that plague these men and accurately showing how this threat can spread so far, so quickly. The film's most bracing moments occur when the characters seem out of harm's way, only to find themselves fighting for their lives seconds later. The director does all that he can to put the viewer into the middle of this danger and succeeds in giving us a greater appreciate for the people who make up these fire crews.

Timely, what with the current California wildfires, "Only the Brave" is an unexpected surprise, a sincere film that cuts to the heart of what true heroism is. These men don't wear capes, can't fly and certainly have no superpowers. Yet they go where many of us would fear to tread, ready to sacrifice themselves so that we might live in safety. "Only the Brave" is a poignant and powerful reminder that to take them for granted is a sin and a great disservice to them.

'Only the Brave' (★★★½ out of four)

Cast: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, Andie McDowell, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Ben Hardy and Scott Haze.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura; screenplay by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer.

A Columbia Pictures release. 133 minutes. Rated PG-13 (thematic content, some sexual references, language & drug material). At AMC Champaign 13, AMC Danville Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16 IMAX.

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Veteran star power drives smart "Foreigner" (★★★½ out of four). There's no question that Jackie Chan has lost a step or three. Yet, he's able to do things no normal 63-year-old man should. You need no computer-generated effects in a Jackie Chan movie. He's his own special effect.

None of the scenes from his latest, "The Foreigner," will make the actor's highlight reel, as this is a different sort of exercise. Yes, Chan does chop, kick and gouge his way through a scene or two, but the things that buoy this smart, taut thriller are narrative switchbacks and well-choreographed action sequences.

Going toe-to-toe with Chan is former James Bond Pierce Brosnan, who, like his co-star, brings a sense of gravitas to the screen that signals to viewers that they're in good hands.

Chan is Quan, an unassuming businessman in London whose life is shattered when a terrorist attack kills his daughter. A new faction of the IRA takes credit, and the bereaved man becomes obsessed with tracking down those responsible. Dissatisfied with the efforts of the London police, Quan contacts Liam Hennessy (Brosnan) a government official who works as a liaison between England and Ireland and had previous ties with the IRA. Reluctantly meeting with Quan, the politician brushes him off, a mistake that will soon come back to haunt him.

What follows is an escalating game of cat-and-mouse in which Quan slowly takes Hennessy apart, at first blackmailing him, then setting off small bombs at his workplace and home. Things deteriorate quickly, the Irishman brings in re-enforcements and then Quan really goes to work. The screenplay by David Marconi, adapted from a novel by Stephen Leather, contains one surprise after another as various characters prove not to be who we think they are. Nearly everyone involved is haunted by their past, each hoping to right some wrong through radical action. Double crosses abound, and characters end up working at cross purposes, all of which is done with intelligence and logic.

This is never more obvious than with the two principals, men who cannot let go of the past that has turned them into the men they are. Brosnan is very good here as Hennessy slowly falls apart, as all that he has come to depend upon falls away piece by piece. Ferocious strength gives way to frustrated bewilderment, and the veteran actor delivers every moment with conviction.

Credit veteran director Martin Campbell ("Goldeneye" "Edge of Darkness") not only for the film's brisk pace and strongly rendered action sequences, but the fact that the story's characters and theme aren't lost in the shuffle. He's an old, capable hand at this sort of thing, much like Chan. These two, as well as Brosnan, take great pride in their work, never dreaming of simply phoning it in. This approach helps elevate "The Foreigner" above similar fare, making for a memorable thriller.

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