In the new Neil Jordan movie, Jodie Foster plays New York talk-radio DJ Erica Bain, who survives a vicious Central Park mugging and becomes an urban crusader devoted to cleaning up the city — with a Glock instead of a broom. Yes, The Brave One is that movie: the one with the posters of once-upon-a-time sweetheart Foster posed artistically against a yellow background, her hand pressed contemplatively against her salon-styled hair, and the tagline "How Many Wrongs to Make It Right?"
Is The Brave One any good? Certainly it's one of those movies that exposes how arbitrary such designations as "good" and "bad" can be, whether in regard to the movie itself or the behavior of its characters. As heads roll and Foster's pretty face becomes splattered by increasing amounts of blood, are we really witnessing something courageous, as the title suggests, or merely an unusually literate exploitation flick — Death Wish with allusions to Lawrence and Dickinson — meant to cash in on audience feelings of fear and impotence in a violent society?
The premise smacks of high-concept contrivance: For starters, Erica Bain isn't any run-of-the-mill DJ but rather the host of a show called Street Walk, for which she prowls the Big Apple, recording the sounds of everyday life and then commenting, in her low, dulcet tones, on the changing, gentrifying face of New York — "a city that is disappearing before our eyes." Nor is The Brave One content to have Erica be just another victim of random violence. She must first be the fiancée of a sensitive, guitar-strumming male nurse named David (Naveen Andrews), whose all-around too-good-to-be-trueness is the subject of much envy by Erica's loveless girlfriends. In short, when The Brave One begins, Erica is living one of those impossibly picture-perfect movie-character lives that seem to cry out for rupture.
But by the time said rupture occurs, there are already strong indications that we're not in Kansas — or any recognizable version of the island of Manhattan — anymore. Erica and David enter Central Park on 106th Street via the portentously named Stranger's Gate, and by the time they come face to face with the pack of tattooed and bandanna'd thugs who beat David to death and leave Erica in a coma, it's as if we've traveled through a space-time wormhole back to the pre-Giuliani city of Erica's nostalgic fantasies. That feeling only grows more intense as Erica, upon her recovery, returns to the streets — and eventually the airwaves — with a firearm in her microphone bag.
Taken literally, almost everything that follows in The Brave One so seriously strains credibility, even by the standards of the genre, as to enter the realm of the absurd. Taken on the level of a menacing urban fairy tale, however, it's strangely fascinating. The vigilante movie, after all, has always seemed a plainclothes variation on the superhero movie, with pimps, druggies, and petty crooks subbed for more exotic, power-mad supervillains. Here, Jordan plays up those connections, giving us a New York — or a Gotham City, if you will — in which Erica Bain can scarcely set foot out of doors without stumbling upon some violation of an innocent. And when she does, the swiftness of her vengeance is quietly startling.
The Brave One isn't the first femme-centric revenge tale, but unlike the mute protagonist of Abel Ferrara's immortal Ms .45, Erica Bain talks about her kills on the radio (in the third person, of course). Callers liken the vigilante, who everyone assumes is a man, to everything from a folk hero — "At least we're getting our street cred back!" — to an exponent of the war in Iraq. But the script, credited to the father-and-son team of Roderick and Bruce A. Taylor (vigilante vets with 1983's Michael Douglas vehicle The Star Chamber and an episode of The Equalizer on their shared résumé) and sitcom writer Cynthia Mort, doesn't fully develop any of those ideas. Instead, the movie hangs in suspended animation between the grindhouse and the art house, as Erica's brutally efficient assassinations and Dirty Harry-style one-liners trade off with ruminations on the nature of cities, violent tendencies inherent in the American character, and received notions of morality.
Still, Jordan's ballsy and sometimes-bonkers movie is more worth writing, talking, and thinking about than anything that has tumbled off the Hollywood assembly line in a good long while. It dares to tell a story in which the audience rarely knows where or if its sympathies should lie. It builds toward one of the unhappiest "happy" endings in recent memory. It gives Foster and her granite cheekbones one of their best roles and a few scenes together with Terrence Howard, as the detective investigating the vigilante case, that burn with the romantic fatalism of a 1940s noir. What does it all amount to? The apparent moral of this bloody fable, as announced to Erica by a kindly neighbor woman, is that "There are plenty of ways to die. You have to figure out a way to live." Which, in the world of The Brave One, is something easier said than done, unless you happen to have a few ounces of lead in your hip pocket.