Brazen is slickly made, but it’s otherwise firmly rooted in ’80s Lifetime thriller territory.
As a title, Brazen sounds a little old-fashioned, a promise of titillation by way of the Hays Code. It makes sense, then, that new Netflix thriller Brazen comes from the pen of famed romance novelist Nora Roberts, an author whose idea of “sexy” routinely involves a warm cup of cocoa and a lusty embrace. Further reinforcing that point, Brazen is based upon a novel that recently celebrated its 33rd birthday; while plot points have been updated for the digital age, its attempts at provocation feel tethered to another era and, quite frankly, another way of life, one found in countless Lifetime and Hallmark movies, where naughtiness must fall within the boundaries of a TV-14 rating. And so, it also makes sense that Brazen comes courtesy of director Monika Mitchell and screenwriters Suzette Couture, Edithe Swensen, and Donald Martin, all of whom have a fair share of basic cable and streaming service films on their resumes: the film is nothing more than your run-of-the-mill Lifetime thriller, but slapped with the Netflix logo this time out.
Even the cast screams budget, with Alyssa Milano starring as Grace Miller, a best-selling mystery novelist who becomes embroiled in a real-life murder investigation after the brutal slaying of her sister (Emilie Ullerup), a seemingly innocent high school teacher who harbored a secret life as a webcam performer specializing in BDSM. In the sanitized world of Brazen, being a dominatrix on the web involves wearing a black wig and a tattered red dress that resembles Diane Lane’s outfit from the final scene of Streets of Fire, continuously cracking a whip, and screaming “Louder!” at some unseen individual on the other side of the webcam. (Indeed, the whole “Louder!” thing might just be the film’s biggest mystery, as it is never made clear what these women want their clients to do at a higher volume.) Meanwhile, Grace has taken up with the hunky next door neighbor, Ed (Sam Page), who also happens to be D.C.’s most famous police detective and who naturally takes on the case as a personal favor to his possible new lover. Not content to sit idly by while a murderer roams free, Grace takes it upon herself to mount her own investigation, ultimately joining forces with the police because, according to the chief, she is, “The greatest profiler working today,” evidence solely provided by the numerous airport novels she has written. Not that these books are simply fluff. “My books deal with the exploitation of women, attacks the patriarchy!” Grace helpfully explains at one point, because Brazen loves its buzzwords even if it has no real intention of actually following through with any of what it espouses. How else to explain a climactic showdown where Milano is forced to parade around and fight in a lacy bustier and rubber catsuit, her breasts looking likely to smother her at any moment? And then the film even has the gall to end with a man coming in to save the day, girl power be damned. Admittedly, it may be unfair to hold Milano to a higher standard than others when it comes to such material, but there’s something especially crass about casting an actress who was at the very fore of the #MeToo movement and reducing her to a mere caricature of so-called feminism.
But perhaps getting bogged down in such unappealing details is beside the point for a film like Brazen, which clearly exists to offer a few cheap thrills and not much else. What value is there in taking seriously such a film when, before bedding Grace, Ed utters the line, “Once isn’t going to be enough,” which makes Grace swoon like some sort of vapors-afflicted Southern belle but is more likely to send the average viewer — this writer included — into a fit of giggling? It would also be nice, in the year 2022, to find a film that doesn’t use a character’s sexuality as some sort of pathetic plot twist, although perhaps this particular detail was taken from the original source material, which was, you know, 1988. Sure, a phone sex operator gets updated to a webcam performer, but a gay high school kid remains utterly shocking in the world of Brazen. Still, despite deluge of easy criticisms, it must also be admitted that the film is slickly produced and moves at a clip, barely giving the viewer any time to ponder its numerous implausibilities and questionable elements; in moment, Brazen is compelling enough, but the cold light of day does not shine kindly. Of course, that would suggest that the average viewer will give the film even a passing thought after the arrival of its end credits. For most, it will be easier and more pleasant to just move on to the next soapy time-waster and new box of wine.
You can currently stream Monika Mitchell’s Brazen on Netflix.