As a genre, revenge pics often present a combo platter of killing for maximum emotional satisfaction -- lay on the brutal crime of a likable innocent, then indulge our need for payback as the criminals are summarily executed by the aggrieved survivor. Badges, we don't need no stinkin' badges: Forego law, and restore order in two hours or less.
That's certainly what we get in Neil Jordan's new drama The Brave One -- though it's not quite that simple. The familiar beats are hit: Shocking crime, disengaged police, the city as lawless jungle, devastated survivor turned vigilante. But The Brave One is also uneasy. It's a different sort of revenge pic: Everything an audience wants, wrapped up in a lukewarm critique of our fears and our desire for instant justice.
That this somewhat tangled, contradictory affair succeeds at all rests on the slim shoulders of Jodie Foster. After her limited participation in Inside Man and the silly actioner Flight Plan, it's good to see the actress back in an emotionally driven role.
Foster plays Erica Bain, a lively Upper West Sider who does a NPR-ish radio program about off-beat New York City called "Street Walk"; off the air, she touches base with arty pals and canoodles with her sensitive doctor fiancé, David (Naveen Andrews). Walking the pooch one night in Central Park, the couple are savagely attacked by thugs, and David is killed.
After Erica's body heals, it's evident that the real damage is psychological. She's devastated by David's absence and, worse, now fears the very city and people that defined her identity. (Earlier, she wore her forays into the city's colorful grime like a merit badge; but, lest we forget, she's simply a visitor.) For comfort, she illegally purchases a handgun. Given her keyed-up emotional state, we wait -- and not for long -- for Erica to use it.
The first killing seems defensible, but from then on, the film asks us to judge the merits of the "justice" Erica metes out: Where are the lines between self-defense, getting out of trouble, cleaning up the city, payback and madness?
In the midst of Erica's recovery, The Brave One introduces a police detective, Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard), who's quietly obsessed with his own justice-denied case. Naturally, in a city as tiny as New York, the two threads intertwine: Mercer, who's also tracking Gotham's new vigilante, sits for a radio interview with Erica. Each senses something wrong-but-right in the other that might be useful. Thus begins their low-key cat-and-mouse game.
Despite the straggly subplots and a number of unbelievable scenarios, The Brave One stays engaging and taut throughout. Much of the hard work falls to Foster's bruised, clenched-fist performance; Jordan gets no points for resorting to hoary techniques such as shooting the faraway, shadowy doorknob to convey Erika's unresolved panic. His wiser move is keeping the camera tight on Foster's raw face: Foster is so intense as the haunted Erica, it's a surprise in long shot when you realize how physically tiny she is.
Admittedly, Sept. 11 rattled all of New York, often referred to in this film as "the safest big city in the world." But whatever the lingering unease from that extra-ordinary event, The Brave One trades openly in an old-school fear: The privileged urban classes aren't safe from savage people of color. In fairness, the film does cop to this: One component of Erica's anger and shame is realizing that a city-centric, well-educated liberal such as herself has likely always harbored this fear, which just needed a spark to ignite.
The film is packed with allusions we still tote around from well before 9/11 -- from the mid-'80s "Subway Vigilante" Bernard Goetz furor and the 1989 Central Park "wilding" attack, and back to cinema's 1970s New-York-is-an-open-sewer genre, with the off-the-rails, gun-toting avengers of Death Wish and Taxi Driver. (Foster had a breakout role in the latter as a teen prostitute; here, it's Foster who rescues a young hooker, completing the circle.)
As typical in such genre fare, the bad guys are just plot devices, simplistic characters borrowed from any cheapie thriller. We learn nothing about them, and the eventual conduit between them and Erica's world feels hastily appended. They weren't born killers either, but The Brave One wants only to plumb the new-to-us twisted psyche of its heroine: When public radio goes feral!
For all its plot shortcuts and inconsistencies, and its muddled fear riffs, The Brave One remains an enjoyable thriller. Naturally, it's easier to pose difficult questions about retribution than to wrap them up neatly, and the film's conclusion is likely to spur lively post-screening debate. I'd have ended the film differently, but given The Brave One's dual obligations to the genre's formula and to critiquing it, its options are somewhat limited.
Starts Fri., Sept. 14.