"The Brave One," the second vigilante vengeance thriller of the fall, doesn't just skate by on another classy turn by Jodie Foster. She makes this latest Spawn of "Death Wish" downright disturbing as she explores the thrilling and then chilling and finally unfulfilling journey her character makes when she takes the law into her own hands.
Erica Bain is a New York radio monologist, a female Ira Glass. She gathers sound with her recorder and weaves aural essays about life in the Naked City, made intimate by her throaty whisper of a voice.
She is in love and about to marry a doctor (Naveen Andrews). But an evening walk through the wrong part of Central Park puts her in a coma and sends her fiance to his grave. The thugs beat and robbed them, videotaped it, and the cops don't have a clue who did it.
Erica's recovery is a slow one. She has become paranoid. It takes all her guts just to leave the apartment.
But her first trek solves her problems. She goes to a gun shop, is rejected for not having a permit, then follows a total stranger into a dark alley and buys an unregistered pistol.
Okaaaaaay. That's a pothole in this plot's logic, the first of several "The Brave One" steps into before tumbling off a cliff for the finale.
Erica needs the gun to feel safe. And when she stumbles into a domestic homicide in a convenience store, she's glad she has it. It saves her life.
Casting a great actress in this role pays real dividends right at this moment. We physically see Erica swell up with courage and purpose after she shoots a killer. The set of Foster's jaw changes, her eyes take on a bit of a Charles Bronson squint. And we're off, or she is, facing down muggers on the subway, meting out rough justice.
She miscalculates some of her assaults on the city's scum, wears her terrible guilt in her shoulder bag and pays lip service to how wrong what she might be doing is (or how welcome it should be to the city and the cops).
All this is headed toward the inevitable search for the punks who destroyed her life.
She has become, she says in the voice over forever in her head, "another person," one with a gun and a willingness to use it.
Terrence Howard is the cop who crosses paths with her. Makes no difference that he didn't handle her original case, that he might have an interest in her beyond her radio show and his growing suspicions about how she spends her nights. It's still the "Death Wish"/"Death Sentence" plotline. He's the guy to say all the right things about "due process" and "the system" and such.
Neil Jordan's wildly uneven directing career since "The Crying Game" is neatly summed up in this shaky but sometimes satisfying thriller, a movie of mood and intensity and a leading lady who is allowed to say, without irony, "I'm not a face. I'm a voice." Jordan beautifully delays closing a few open-ended clues from the film's opening scenes, gives Foster and Howard, Andrews and Foster and Mary Steenburgen (her boss) and Foster room to act in their one-on-one scenes.
And then he lets the movie toss a lot of that goodwill away in some moments that defy belief.
"The Brave One" comes utterly undone in its last reel, but along the way, Foster keeps us engaged in Erica's story even if she never quite lets us take a position on what she is doing. She's uncertain, and she makes us uncertain as well.
But the finale is bad enough to make you wish the actress were working more often, so that the blatantly commercial stuff wasn't all she was letting us see. Just doing weakly plotted, surefire Jodie-in-jeopardy hits such as "Flightplan" and "Panic Room" and this to keep your "quote" up? Not brave. Not brave at all.