BOOTLEG FILES 496: “The Brave” (1997 feature directed by and starring Johnny Depp).

LAST SEEN: The full film is on YouTube in an unauthorized posting.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The star-director will not allow the film to be released in the U.S.


The biggest flop of this year’s summer movie harvest was “The Lone Ranger,” and many experts blamed its failure on the casting of Johnny Depp as the Indian brave Tonto. However, this was not the first time that Depp played an Indian in a cinematic debacle. Back in 1997, Depp took a detour down tribal roads as both the leading man and the director of a bizarre mess about an impoverished Indian who sacrifices his life to save his struggling family – by agreeing to receive $50,000 as the star of a snuff film.

The flick in question is “The Brave,” and it is one of those productions that seemed to operate under a constant dark cloud. Based on a grim novel by Gregory McDonald (who is best known for the lighthearted “Fletch” series of novels), “The Brave” was originally planned as a Touchstone offering in 1993 under the guidance of first-time director Aziz Ghazal. However, prior to the pre-production phase, Ghazal murdered his wife and 13-year-old daughter before killing himself. Based solely on the scandal surrounding Ghazal’s fatal breakdown, Touchstone abruptly jettisoned “The Brave” from its line-up.

The project was then shopped to Johnny Depp, who was enjoying a degree of critical and commercial favor thanks to films including “Ed Wood” and “Don Juan de Marco.” Depp was not initially enthused with “The Brave” – he later told the Los Angeles Times that he “didn’t particularly like it” – but he agreed to become involved if he could rewrite the screenplay (with his brother D.P. Depp) and direct the project. Although Depp had never directed before, he insisted on having the right to the final cut on the film.

No Hollywood studio would agree to Depp’s demands, but that ultimately did not matter because the production was funded via advanced international theatrical sales. Depp also invested his own money into the endeavor to cover cost overruns. Thus, the film took like as an independent production with Depp fully in charge – and that’s where things went very wrong.

Part of the problem with the film version of “The Brave” is Depp’s decision to cast himself in the central role of Raphael, the Indian ex-con who agrees to participate as the fatal victim of a snuff film in exchange for $50,000 that will be paid to his wife and children. (The film takes place in the seven-day stretch between Raphael’s agreeing to the deal and his arrival to be tortured and killed for the cameras.) Depp’s claims of distant Native American heritage might justify his casting as an Indian, but he was clearly uncomfortable with McDonald’s notion of Raphael as an alcoholic illiterate that is ultimately betrayed by his unscrupulous partners. In the film, Depp is a noble and focused character that is capable of having deeply emotional conversations with his loved ones. In the end, these changes throw the story off-kilter – his Raphael comes across as being too intelligent to allow himself to get involved in a cockamamie snuff film scheme.

In order to look like a poor Indian, Depp walks about with long hair, a bandana and grungy clothing that was clearly tailored to show off his buff body. However, this makes him look like a rock star instead of a financially and emotionally trapped man living in poverty. Depp’s body language is also out of sync with the story – he struts through the film and stands with a self-confident nature that is completely at odds with his character’s crisis.

Complicating matters further was Depp’s decision to recruit Marlon Brando, his “Don Juan de Marco” co-star, to play the snuff film producer. To his credit, Brando agreed to waive his normally extravagant salary requirements and work for scale. But Brando refused to keep his late-career outlandish hamming under control.

Starting with his bizarre entry – pushing himself in a wheelchair, only to pause and play the harmonica – Brando sails into a Kurtz-worthy rambling monologue on death and sacrifice that sounds wildly improvised. Although Brando uses his voice effectively, the actor’s physical appearance – long hair tied in a ponytail and a body lost under pounds of morbid obesity – creates a depressing shock. The viewer cannot get into his character – it is Brando as a late-life fool, not a once-great actor deeply invested in a fully dimensional creation.

But, in fairness, Brando is not alone in failing to disappear into character. “The Brave” is packed with actors that go overboard in trying to fulfill their respective roles – Luis Guzmán becomes near-rabid as Raphael’s ex-partner in crime, Clarence Williams III is ridiculously sincere as a priest, Marshall Bell is Peckinpah-worthy vicious as a hood sent to ensure Raphael fulfills his part of the bargain, and Iggy Pop (who also wrote the film’s uneven score) stands out like a proverbial sore thumb in a sequence involving a party that Raphael throws for his family and friends.

As a first-time director, Depp’s work is adequate. Some critics have cited influences from Jim Jarmusch, who directed Depp in “Dead Man.” But I don’t see Depp as being able to replicate that director’s distinctive style – no one could possibly come to “The Brave” and mistake it for a Jarmusch work.

“The Brave” premiered at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, where it reportedly received a standing ovation from its audiences. But the critics were not leading the cheers – Variety dismissed it as a “a turgid and unbelievable neo-western” while Film Scouts’ David Sterritt faulted the film as declining into “bad melodramatics.” Depp confided to the Los Angeles Times that he had “a feeling that American reviews will be scathing” if the film were released in the U.S. – and, thus, he declined to make the film available to American release. Thanks to the aforementioned advanced international sales, “The Brave” played in theatrical and home entertainment release all over the world, except in North America. To date, Depp has refused to release his work in his own country.

“The Brave” can be located on Amazon in a Region 2 DVD, and the full film is on YouTube in an unauthorized multiple installment posting. But unless you are severely addicted to Johnny Depp, this film offers very little in the way of genuine entertainment value. Ultimately, “The Brave” should have been renamed “The Foolish.”

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Jim says:

    I disagree with the review, I think it’s a great movie and a great performance by depp.

  2. nckens says:

    Also maybe there is a racial overtone to the criticism, the same folks who one hand hiss at “How the West was Won” (well the ones who aren’t still blind by that movie) is insensitive to other races and their plight in true history but at the same time get mad when someone of another “persuasion” get bold/brave enough to tell another side of history and how it was really won (Hence the Brave, the Lone Ranger). Just look at how they trashed the movies, neither in fact were that bad and how they’re calling for his retirement, shades of how they did Marlon Brando back in the 60s and the years after Apocalypse Now.

  3. DeanLearner says:

    While I mostly agree with your reviews & read this column religiously every week, I must interject a note of disagreement with you here. This film is great. Not epic & profound, mind you. But, a masterful evocation of time, place, culture & people. My wife & I enjoyed this movie a lot. It’s not for everyone, tho.

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