Movie review: 'The Brave One'

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3 stars (out of four)

"The Brave One" is "Death Wish" with a guilty conscience, and while it may be a bit of a hypocrite as vigilante thrillers go, the internal contradictions of the thing make for a very interesting picture. Ever since Shakespeare toned up the revenge tragedy with "Hamlet," storytellers have been elevating genre pieces as provocatively as their talents allow. I'm not suggesting "The Brave One" (dull title) is Shakespeare or "Taxi Driver," but it's the work of first-rate filmmakers and actors doing everything they can to find the truth in the pulp and the bloodlust.

Jodie Foster plays Erica Bain, a woman who is all voice and no body (the actress' own description). She hosts a Manhattan public radio show called "Street Walk," chronicling New York day and night life. One evening Erica and her fiance (Naveen Andrews) are walking their dog in Central Park and, in a pedestrian tunnel, they're attacked. The whole brutal affair is caught on cell phone camera and suddenly Erica's alone--fiance dead, dog gone, her old self lost in a three-week-long coma.

When she wakes up she's one of the walking wounded, an emblem of the grief and rage New York City has buried inside since Sept. 11, 2001. This presumptive public-radio liberal buys herself a gun, and following the precepts of the genre, starts attracting an improbable amount of evildoers. First, a convenience store robber, then some punks on the subway, then a white-collar criminal who'd otherwise go free to live his miserable stinking life--dead and gone. The detective investigating this recent unsolved rash of killings, played by Terrence Howard, takes on the role of Erica's metaphoric dance partner. They become friends; she interviews him for her radio show; then, by increments, he suspects she's hiding something.

Director Neil Jordan, working from a script written by Roderick Taylor and Bruce A. Taylor and revised by Cynthia Mort, makes New York a place of dark enchantments. (The sleek cinematography is by Philippe Rousselot.) Erica becomes the Travis Bickle of the early 21st Century, though she remains a stealth creature, in the shadows. The "Taxi Driver" echoes are clearly intentional: Foster received her first Oscar nomination (she's won twice, for "The Accused" and "The Silence of the Lambs") for her work as Iris, the barely teenaged prostitute whose salvation becomes the obsession of Robert De Niro's character.

"Taxi Driver," one of the key works of the '70s, is a thing of stupendous and often horrifying contradictions itself. It doesn't feel like a studio picture; rather, it seems to have sprung straight out of New York's grungiest, most menacing moment in history, alive and kicking. "The Brave One" is too smooth a creation to really shake up audiences. But Foster and Howard are awfully good in it. She's a sharp, staccato actress, tightly coiled and jabbingly quick; he likes to take an exchange smooth and easy, legato all the way. Their contrasting energies blend well, and Foster and Howard are the reasons you find yourself engaged in this mixture of elegy and thriller, all the way up to (if not through) the contrivances of the final reel.

The North American poster for "The Brave One" depicts a mourning, crestfallen Foster with her head hanging down, and her right hand brandishing a pistol. You should see the Taiwanese poster: Foster looks meaner and more Chuck Bronson-y than Bronson. Director Jordan is enough of an atmospheric craftsman to steer his actors between the images suggested by these two posters. We're meant to be absorbed and unsettled by this radio personality turned sociopath, and we are--though when a tony vigilante tale's closing theme contains the lyrics "worth it in the end," I think the songwriters and the filmmakers are settling for easy answers. The best of this stimulating, mixed-up urban nightmare does not.


'The Brave One'

Directed by Neil Jordan; screenplay by Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort; photographed by Philippe Rousselot; music by Dario Marianelli; edited by Tony Lawson; production design by Kristi Zea; produced by Joel Silver and Susan Downey. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:59. MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, language and some sexuality).

Erica Bain - Jodie Foster

Sean Mercer - Terrence Howard

David - Naveen Andrews

Carol - Mary Steenburgen

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