Title: Brother’s Justice
Directors: Dax Shepard, David Palmer
Starring: Dax Shepard and Nate Tuck, with Tom Arnold, Bradley Cooper, David Koechner, Ashton Kutcher, Jon Favreau
Those who’ve ever seen “Punk’d” can attest to the improvisational comedy skills of Dax Shepard, who put both himbo bewilderment and mock outrage to good use for Ashton Kutcher’s hidden-camera show, which eventually launched him into costarring roles in proper big screen entertainment like “Without a Paddle”, “Employee of the Month” and “Idiocracy”. His latest film finds Shepard chafed by the constraints of comedy, however, and working to try to break out of the box into which he feels he’s been put by Hollywood. A low-budget, industry-satirizing mockumentary, “Brother’s Justice” meets with some mixed early success before eventually crumbling due to a lack of focus.
Co-directed by Shepard and David Palmer, this long-on-the-shelf entry unfolds in 2006, as Shepard, without any formal martial arts training, attempts to leave comedy behind and refashion himself as an action star by headlining a self-financed, Chuck Norris-type kick-’em-up flick. Shepard’s dream project is called “Brother’s Justice”, and in the mold of “Missing in Action” or “Breaker, Breaker” — a fraternally-inclined, narratively streamlined tale of outdoor-set revenge. Figuring a script isn’t necessarily, only a shaggy pitch, Shepard enlists the help of his producer pal, Nate Tuck, who unblinkingly accepts Shepard’s proclamations of the grand success that awaits them.
Trying to drum up support for the project, the duo then visits Shepard’s agent, and hits up a variety of his old costars, directors and friends, like Kutcher, Tom Arnold and Jon Favreau. Dead-ends abound, but Shepard undertakes jujitsu training nonetheless, with disasterous consequences. As these struggles begin to take a toll on Shepard and Tuck’s friendship, we also see test footage from past collaborations that have never come to fruition, and have combined to wipe Tuck out financially. When Shepard angrily dares Tuck to try to get the project made without him, Tuck turns to Bradley Cooper and David Koechner.
“Brother’s Justice” has considerable heart, pluck and amiable chemistry, and to the degree that one grades on a curve and takes those qualities into account, they’ll find some reward herein. It also has some quite funny bits, both small (Shepard’s insistence he can fight any other comedian, and then backpeddling and qualifying) and seeded throughout (Arnold’s insistence on playing Shepard’s brother rather than his father in the movie, and Shepard’s continued manipulation and passive-aggressive abuse of Tuck).
The problem, though, is that the film doesn’t have a well-defined angle driving it. Lip service is paid to the idea of Shepard having a love of martial arts since childhood, but the movie doesn’t convincingly portray this, or invest the concept with enough manic, obsessed energy. Neither does “Brother’s Justice” tap into or define the wounded ego of a comedian seeking industry relevance via overseas box office clout — another motivating factor with which it briefly flirts. While Shepard has a certain shaggy charm, he unfortunately plays “himself” here as a total idiot, absent any true sense or grasp of the film world business realities involved in such a wild, self-financed venture. Ergo, while often amusing from scene to scene, all the satirical underpinning feels flat and undercooked, unattached to a more grounded reality. Diverting, improvisational, flight-of-fancy comedy is fine, but the mockumentary format requires a stronger, more focused and honed conceit that “Brother’s Justice” just doesn’t possess, alas.
Note: In addition to playing in theaters, “Brother’s Justice” is currently available nationwide on-demand.
Written by: Brent Simon