Brake is both the title of a new thriller that will leave you breathless, and the one thing you’ll be yelling for to survive it. Directed at break-neck speed by Gabe Torres, it’s a movie so original and terrifying that to even attempt to tell you what it’s about would ruin the fun of discovering it for yourself. Suffice it to say, you will not be bored.
The star is Stephen Dorff, an unpredictable and always interesting actor who eschews the big bucks and easy fame of mainstream movies to devote his career to more challenging and transformative roles in quirky, low-budget independents—68 of them so far—ranging from good (Public Enemies) to bad (Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere) to downright unspeakable (Cecil B. Demented). He prefers risks to even bets, and he has proved himself fearless. (Don’t forget, he once played drag queen Candy Darling in I Shot Andy Warhol.) In Brake, he comes closest to leading-man status as he is likely to get, and the crackerjack results are well worth the 90-minute investment.
Waking in the darkness of a claustrophobic box, he seems to have been buried alive. His name is Jeremy, but he doesn’t know where he is or how he got there. You automatically think Ryan Reynolds in Buried, but this movie has a long way to go and the goose bumps are just beginning. Suddenly, from a walkie-talkie in the pitch blackness, he hears the voice of another man pleading, “Get me outta here,” trapped in the same situation, fearing for the safety of his wife and children, who are apparently being held hostage by a gang of terrorists. Then the sound of an engine starting, and his body starts knocking from side to side. Yes, of course. He’s locked in the trunk of a moving car! The other voice that becomes his only companion belongs to a member of the State Department, and apparently the driver of the car thinks Mr. Dorff is a secret agent too. “We know who you are, Agent Reins. Tell us what we want to know. Where is the location of Roulette?” When his mood switches from bewilderment to rage, the driver releases into the darkness a hive of bees, knowing he’s allergic to the stings! The psychological and physical torture is just beginning.
In the course of 90 minutes, with the help of the voice on the other phone line, the pieces of the mystery are gradually revealed. Roulette is the name of a secret underground bunker built to house the president, vice president and national security advisers in the event of a national disaster. “We know who you are! We know who you work for!” chimes the chilling voice of the terrorist behind the steering wheel. Indeed Jeremy does turn out to be a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service who refuses to divulge the location even when his own wife is taken hostage while he’s warning her on a cell phone. And obviously the world outside the vehicle is in the middle of some kind of hostile attack. According to his government superiors, his friends and the special 911 operator who is trying to rescue him, Washington is in the midst of explosions and car bombings detonating at key locations like CIA headquarters, Reagan International Airport and Andrews Air Base. There are political undertones to sharpen the guesswork, but they’re unimportant compared with the exciting way the plot mechanics are worked out, bit by bit, without computer-generated effects. The script by Timothy Mannion switches gears so often it keeps you tossing like a sailboat in a typhoon.
Except for an occasional face glimpsed through broken windshields or the glass pipe that pumps unbearable horrors into the rear trunk, Mr. Dorff is the only actor on the screen for at least 80 minutes of the time. He is not the most important element in the film. He is the film. When the car plunges underwater and he is finally pulled from the wreckage only seconds before drowning, everyone he knows surrounds him. He’s safe at last. But the nightmare is far from over. Nobody is who they appear to be, and there’s a final chapter that will make you scream. It is amazing how much hair-raising action and fluid movement this film captures in the confined interior of a car trunk, or how many mood shifts Mr. Dorff conveys in a performance that can only be called multi-dimensional. From the red herrings around each turn in the road to the identities of the terrorists at the end, Brake is a film that never pauses to catch its breath. In retrospect, it’s preposterous. But while you’re gasping for air, it’s one hell of a thrill ride, like being stuck on a malfunctioning roller coaster for an hour and a half at top speed, and unable to get off.
Running Time 92 minutes
Written by Timothy Mannion
Directed by Gabe Torres
Starring Stephen Dorff, Chyler Leigh and JR Bourne
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