And here with his audition for a basic cable star vehicle is Stephen Dorff. The diminutive actor has been allowed by Hollywood to attempt to play tough guys repeatedly, despite having the physical composition of Christian Slater’s post-shave whiskers. But his effort as a journeyman actor in both big studio films and art house efforts have paid off, as Dorff, in his later years, has become an actor of uncommon gravity in a series of ill-fitting projects. While he still cannot hold the center in a big starring role, his weathered handsomeness more often than not enriches the emotional plausibility that surrounds him, even if at times it’s close to nil.
He needs every inch of that newfound creditibility for “Brake,” a delirious new film that rests entirely on his shoulders. We know little about Dorff’s badass-named Secret Service agent Jeremy Reins when the film starts, as we see only patches of light at the corners of the screen. We soon learn that Reins is acting out “Die Hard” in a car trunk, stuck while unseen villains torture him from the outside. His only salvation is a phone that you’d think the baddies would know to confiscate. And yet the answers he can derive from a series of phone calls are weak, suggesting his captors knew the risks and didn’t care.
It seems an awful lot that “Brake” is an attempt to make Reins better appreciate his life. After all, he doesn’t call any family members and seems to have no friends, reduced to getting in touch with his mostly supportive ex-girlfriend. But that would give this film the pretension that would weigh it down, and it becomes clear that this is simply a pressure-cooker b-movie setup, leaving the audience to wonder not only whether he’ll break out of his predicament, but also how many different ways they can keep such a limited on-camera perspective interesting.
Because of its b-movie leanings, the modest “Brake” doesn’t bore. Director Gabe Torres and writer Timothy Mannion, to their credit, keep Dorff busy, throwing a number of objects and worries at Reins. As the world outside the car expands (we learn he’s one part of what could be a massive conspiracy), Jeremy has to contend with a mysteriously stopping-and-starting ticking clock. It’s a sure thing that a Secret Service agent would never come face to face with a literal time bomb, though its likely Jeremy panics because he recognizes this is the same number typography as used on the popular terrorist show “24.”
With a premise like this, however, the filmmakers are constantly walking on eggshells, because all it takes are a couple of missteps and the entire endeavor falls to pieces. The film starts to teeter whenever Jeremy is speaking to someone else on his old-fashioned ham radio (sure, whatever). As he keeps up conversations with them, it’s very hard to believe a sharp-seeming guy like Jeremy is going to immediately trust others with his identity, especially when they are voiced by actors who may have worked a previous gig as QVC spokesman. Then again, the punishments he faces are simple and effective. One involves bees.
“Brake” is persistent in its pacing, but in its single-minded goal to follow the premise to the very end, it can’t help but meander once it approaches feature length. Dorff is capable and compelling as Reins, even if his action-star swagger never disappears, but few actors could keep this story from being repetitive beyond the hour mark. As such, the film is a heavy-breathing b-movie juggernaut throughout its runtime, only to cough and wheeze, before doing a goofy somersault over the finish line. Spoilers aren’t really to be feared when discussing any movies, as they imply a film is only simplemindedly leading to one specific point at the end, the entire film being setup to one large payoff. But in the case of “Brake”, it’s one of the few films that deserves such a “spoiler warning.” Make of that what you will. [C+]