Looking at the box art for Fox's Blu-ray release of 'Home of the Brave,' I was surprised that I hadn't heard of the film. The recent theatrical release boasted a star-studded cast, a timely examination of the current war in Iraq, and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Song. A quick check online revealed how it managed to slip below my radar. Opening only in limited release this past spring, the film earned a measly $44,000 during its domestic theatrical run and a grand total of $250,000 worldwide. It was then that I hoped against hope that perhaps 'Home of the Brave' wasn't the stinker that its box office take seemed to suggest, but rather a victim of poor marketing.
The story is fairly straight forward. After surviving an insurgent ambush while on a routine humanitarian mission in Iraq, four US soldiers each face their own set of unique challenges: Tommy (Brian Presley) is plagued by guilt over the death of a good friend; Vanessa (Jessica Biel) fights to deal with an amputated limb; Jamal (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) is haunted by memories of the attack; and Will (Samuel L. Jackson) succumbs to alcoholism in an attempt to re-adjust to his everyday family life. War has taken its toll on all four soldiers, leaving each to decide whether to rise from the psychological ashes of their shared trauma or to lay down and give in to depression and rage.
Unfortunately, the intriguing setup doesn't result in great cinema. 'Home of the Brave' doesn't challenge the status quo or effectively reveal the plight of soldiers -- instead, it merely offers a sentimental tale of four lost souls who dig their way out of tragedy. It isn't a bad movie per se (the performances in particular are quite strong), it just has some fundamental inadequacies that hinder it from standing out from other, better, post-war films. The script is stocky, character development is convenient rather than organic, and the emotional drama is heavy-handed and forced.
It doesn't help that 'Home of the Brave' takes an overly cautious approach to the war itself. Don't get me wrong, I don't need a film to make conclusive moral judgments for me -- I'm a fan of movies that ask a question and leave the final answer to the viewer. But in taking a relativistic stance that would seem to suggest that everyone in an argument is correct when you consider their individual perspective, the film fails to be an effective exploration of the war, its soldiers, or the reaction of the public. I would rather watch a great flick that I disagree with than one that seems to worry about offending its audience at every turn.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that 'Home of the Brave' bears more than a passing resemblance to he Oscar-winning Vietnam epic 'The Deer Hunter.' In fact, although it pales in comparison, the structure, script, and plotting of 'Home of the Brave' is near-replica of the earlier masterpiece, suggesting that director Irwin Winkler ('De-Lovely,' 'Life as a House') and screenwriter Mark Friedman may have watched 'The Deer Hunter' a few too many times for their own good. The filmmakers even employ small touches like a quiet, mournful guitar in the score to create an extremely familiar mood. Perhaps this is intended as an homage, but at times it feels more like plagiarism.
In the end, 'Home of the Brave' is an average war film that relies on its performances to cover up the inadequacies of its script. As a huge fan of 'The Deer Hunter,' I found the film to be a frustrating clone that failed to establish a strong, original voice. I'm sure it will find a receptive audience on home video, but I found it to be too sappy and plodding for my tastes.
'Home of the Brave' is presented in 1080p with a less-than-stellar MPEG-2 transfer that never quite taps into the film's visual potential. A boost in color is the main draw here -- a surprisingly vibrant palette houses natural skintones supported by stable primaries. The concurrently-released standard DVD looks fairly good, but an increased level of detail makes this Blu-ray edition a clear upgrade. Close-ups receive the most benefit from the move to high definition with skin texture, fibers, and officer pins looking much better.
Sadly, a general softness and intermittent haziness keeps the picture's crisp details from popping. Look no further than the funeral scene in chapter six -- note the gravestones in the cemetery, the leaves on the trees, and the clothing on the attendants. As the film moves towards its climax, the lack of clarity seems to become more and more of an issue. In the last fifteen minutes, there are a group of scenes I'd consider average at best. Making matters worse is the fact that minor artifacting, digital noise, and some rather obvious edge enhancement appear in quite a few shots. Add up all of these individual issues and a larger overriding problem emerges -- image depth is less than convincing and the overall experience is murkier than other high definition standouts.
'Home of the Brave' features a Lossless DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track that does a great job with what its given. While the film focuses on conversations far more than the chaos of the battlefield, the first twenty minutes of the film boast several scenes that really open up the soundfield. Bullets pound stone walls, crumbling debris scatters across the ground, and the labored breathing of overheated soldiers is quite natural. In these brief showcase moments, the track's dynamic range is particularly strong and the LFE channel is used to good effect. The surrounds are engaging, ambiance is aggressive, and the soundscape is nicely prioritized.
Beyond these bombastic high points, dialogue is fairly crisp and spread across the front channels. Voices seemed to lack a certain weight I'm used to from high-def audio, but only a handful of hushed scenes toward the end of the film had me bumping the volume up a bit. Interior acoustics, directionality, and channel pans are decent and it was moderately easy to immerse myself in the experience. In the end, 'Home of the Brave' won't necessarily turn heads after its first half hour, but the DTS-HD MA track is impressive even when downgraded to its core bitrate.
(Note that the core of this track is set at 768kbps rather than the standard bitrate of 1.5Mbps. But fear not, without knowledge of the lower bitrate, I doubt anyone would notice the difference.)
This Blu-ray edition of 'Home of the Brave' ports over all of the supplemental features from the domestically-released standard DVD. Note that it does not include the wealth of content available on some 2-disc European versions of the DVD, including three documentaries on Saddam Hussein and Iraq's conflicts with the US, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and a photo gallery.
'Home of the Brave' didn't do much for me in its high-def debut. While it features a nice DTS-HD MA audio mix, the film itself is disappointing, the video transfer is soft, and the supplements are thin and missing chunks of features that appear on some European versions of the DVD. If you still find this one tempting, I strongly recommend giving it a rent before making a purchase decision.