A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE BRAVE ONE jj
Ĺ

2007, R, 122 mins.

Erica: Jodie Foster / Mercer: Terrence Howard / David: Naveen Andrews / Carol: Mary Steenburgen / Nicole: Jane Adams / Det. Vitale: Nicky Katt

Directed by Neil Jordan / Written by Roderick Taylor and Bruce A. Taylor.

There is a fleeting moment in the new thriller THE BRAVE ONE where the character played by Jodie Foster is shown purchasing a black market gun from a dealer.  She holds the gun in her hands with idle curiosity at first and then she lifts it up, aims it, and points it at the camera.  This woman is emotionally damaged goods primarily enraged by the raw deal that she feels society has given her.  She then makes it her own obsessive and very personal vendetta to rid the streets of those that do harm to others.

There have been many critics that have drawn comparisons between THE BRAVE ONE and the original 1974 DEATH WISH, starring Charles Bronson in the role that made him famous.  I think that the correlations between the two films are superficial at best.  Clearly, the dark, gritty, urban revenge thriller was truly forged and initiated by that 1970's film, which spawned countless imitators and launched a series of four increasingly awful sequels in its own right.  THE BRAVE ONE could easily be labeled as "DEATH WISH with a chick", but I found more similarities with it and TAXI DRIVER, which also co-starred Foster in her unforgettable performance as a 14-year-old prostitute.  When Fosterís character in THE BRAVE ONE held that gun up and cocked and pointed it with a tenacity and vigor, I could not help but remember a similar chilling scene in TAXI DRIVER, where the mentally deranged Travis Bickle solemnly and coldly announced to the world that he would be "the rain to wash away all the filth in the streets."

On many levels, THE BRAVE ONE takes great pains to not be a standard, paint-by-numbers revenge thriller, despite the fact that - at face value - it contains many of the stock elements of those genre films.  We get the innocent victim that has had an unalterable life changing event that has robbed her of a loved one.  Then, we see her disintegrate into an emotional tailspin of despair when she sees that the law will not give her justice and satisfaction.  Ultimately, she turns to vigilantism, which gives her an eerie disconnect from the world she lives in, but nevertheless allows her to develop some closure with her own deeply vented wounds.

Clearly, nothing in THE BRAVE ONE is cutting edge.  Yet, like TAXI DRIVER, this is a tale of urban decay that finds interest in the psychological underpinnings of the vigilante and has less of an appetite for action and violence.  There is violence in THE BRAVE ONE, but it rarely is seen as anything but depressingly vile and savage: Itís never glorified for the sake of generating cheap thrills.  The best thing that the film does is to dive into the tortured mindset of its character.  Bickle was a loose cannon who felt that the world he lived in failed to fulfill him, so he lashed out at it with wanton violence.  Fosterís character is a bit more relatable in the sense that she was once decent minded and upstanding, but was robbed of a a life with her fiance, which acts as a catalyst for her lust for vengeance. 

If only these two wounded souls could have hooked up in other circumstances.

THE BRAVE ONE certainly has a lot going for it, the first being another Oscar worthy turn by the chameleon-like Foster, who is able to categorically dial so efficiently into the frail and tormented psyche of her vigilante.  She is complimented by yet another great performance by Terrance Howard, who has shown with films like CRASH and HUSTLE AND FLOW why he is perhaps one of the finest actors working today.  The real treat of the film is to see the two play off of one another with such a perfect rhythm and modulation.  Supporting them is the stylish and evocative direction of Neil Jordan (INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE and THE CRYING GAME) who films THE BRAVE ONE with a bleak color palette and haunting visuals that helps to drum up the tension and disturbing atmosphere.

Yet, THE BRAVE ONEís problems cannot be trumped by a solid directorial eye and universally rock steady performances by the two leads.  The filmís real detrimental quality is its definitive lack of coherence and thought with dealing with the underlining theme of vigilante street justice.  Revenge films are either designed for sleazy, exploitative thrills worthy of lurid pulp fiction or they deal thoroughly with the complex moral conundrums that vigilantism presents.  THE BRAVE ONE disapprovingly occupies a somewhat narrow-minded middle ground between the two entities.  At times, it's gritty and serious with its issues, but a lot of the time it's as crudely manipulative and gaudy as a DEATH WISH sequel.

Perhaps its biggest sin is that it never really develops any meaningful commentary about whether or not vigilante justice is right or wrong.  Itís failing is in trying to appease audience members that want blood and carnage and those that want an introspective and thoughtful examination of the issue.  Even worse is the filmís final act, which seems to throw logic completely out of the widow.  This is one of those rare films whose third act feels like one of those bad, alternate endings that occupies the special features section of a DVD.

Jodie Foster is at least in grand form as Erica, a forty-something New York radio talk show that is approaching marrying the love of her life, David (Naveen Andrews).  They have an idealized relationship that is destroyed one evening during a fateful stole through the park with their dog.  Both are savagely beaten, Erica within an inch of her life.  David dies within hours of making it to the hospital.  After walking up from a coma, Erica is a woman paralyzed by fear and uncertainty.  Her naive and idealized perception of a safe life as a New Yorker has been tarnished forever.  Neil Jordan does a superb job here during scenes where we see how traumatizing it is for Erica to try to take her life back by leaving the confines of her apartment.  Just as she tries to leave, the past creeps up on her and tightens its grip.

In pure pre-vigilante form, she finds little satisfaction from the policeís less-than-stellar handling of her case (to the filmís discredit, some of the police men are shown as one-dimensional stooges).  She then decides that she has had enough and decides to purchase a gun (which happens a bit too quickly in the film to be plausible).  When the legal wait times donít sit well with her, she buys one illegally.  Like Travis Bickle, she uses her new gun in an all-night convenience store that was viscously robbed.  She kills the robber more or less to save her life, but some sort of sickening impulse starts to take over her: She develops a taste for killing wrongdoers, even when she knows she should not.

More and more victims are left in her wake; some are street punks trying to rob subway patrons, another is a cruel pimp that has not let his hooker leave his car in days, and so forth.  Meanwhile, two cunning and smart homicide detectives, Mercer (Howard) and Vitale (Nicky Katt, once again strutting confidently in a supporting role of subtle comic relief), try to put together clues from each murder scene as to the M.O. and identity of the killer.  Slowly but surely, Mercer starts to realize that the murderer may, in fact, be a woman, and he comes to this epiphany while he develops a friendship with Erica herself.

The interplay between Erica and Mercer is the best part of THE BRAVE ONE.  Many of their scenes are the filmís finest, especially in the way both Foster and Howard are able to smoothly ease into their performances and reveal themselves to each other through subtle dialogue.  Mercer grows to understand and like Erica, but he begins to deeply suspect her of the crimes in question.  Erica also has respect for Mercer - one of the few men of the law she does admire - and she too thinks that he knows that she is the wanted vigilante.  Yet, whatís really intriguing is how neither party admits that to the other, which is true during a moment in a diner where the two emotionally troubled characters bare their souls to one another by leaving each other the dots, but by not actually connecting them with straight lines.

As much as I admired the acting, the handing of the filmís themes are unreservedly bipolar and standoffish.  Throughout the film I was never clear on whether it was taking a stance for or against vigilante justice.  Furthermore, I was not sure whether it wanted to be a sharp indictment of the lethargic nature of the police investigative process.  Again, the film does not glamorize most of Ericaís killings (there are shown as shockingly immediate), but the moral ambiguity the film swims through is frustrating.  At times it tries to be a daring expose with some social commentary, and at other times - especially during its final scene - it becomes a crass escapist action spectacle.  The film has the ingredients during its buildup to be a meditative piece on vigilante justice, but the way it utterly cops out with both of its main characters in the end seems to be disingenuous to everything it tried to develop.  Instead of being sobering and chilling, the conclusion of the film reeks of schlocky sensationalism which I found abhorrent.

Thatís too bad, because THE BRAVE ONE works so productively as a character piece with stellar performances by Jodie Foster and Terrance Howard.  When the two of them are on screen together, THE BRAVE ONE is uniquely captivating and compelling.  If there is a reason to see the film then it surely is to see two finely tuned actors at the top of the form.  Nonetheless, THE BRAVE ONE never capitalizes on its themes of vigilante justice, nor does it satisfactorily deal with the issue with any even handedness.  This is the type of revenge thriller that desperately yearns to rise above the level of paltry manipulation, but the way it's conclusion was handled left me feeling that THE BRAVE ONE is a film that is lying to itself.  In the end, this thriller was initially thought-provoking and then became woefully unconvincing and wrong-headed.  Why profess to be a searing and serious drama about how violence affects people when you blatantly take the easiest possible exit off of that road?

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