In The Brave One, 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.
The premise certainly seems contrived: Erica Bain isn't any DJ, but the host of a show called Street Walk, for which she prowls the Big Apple, recording the sounds of everyday life and commenting on the changing face of New York. And she isn't just another victim of random violence. She's the fiancée of a guitar-strumming male nurse named David (Naveen Andrews), whose too-good-to-be-trueness is envied by Erica's loveless girlfriends. 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 the rupture occurs, there are already strong indications that we're not in Kansas -- or any recognizable version of the island of Manhattan -- anymore. By the time Erica and her beau encounter the pack of tattooed thugs who attack them, it's as if we've traveled back to the pre-Giuliani city of Erica's gritty, nostalgic fantasies. That feeling only grows more intense as Erica returns to the streets -- and eventually the airwaves -- with a firearm in her microphone bag.
Almost everything that follows so seriously strains credibility, it enters the realm of the absurd. But taken as a menacing urban fairy tale, the film fascinates. The vigilante movie has always seemed a plainclothes variation on the superhero movie, with pimps and petty crooks subbing for power-mad supervillains. Here, director Neil Jordan plays up those connections, giving us a New York -- or a Gotham City, if you will -- in which Erica can scarcely step outside without stumbling upon some violation of an innocent. When she does, the swiftness of her vengeance is quietly startling.
She then, of course, talks about her kills on the radio -- in the third person. Listeners assume the vigilante she speaks of is a man. Calling in, they dub him everything from a folk hero to an Iraq veteran. The movie hangs between the grindhouse and the arthouse, as Erica's efficient assassinations and Dirty Harry-style one-liners trade off with ruminations on the nature of cities and morality.
But Jordan's ballsy, sometimes bonkers movie is more worth talking and thinking about than anything that's tumbled off the Hollywood assembly line in a while. It dares to tell a story in which the audience rarely knows where (or if) their sympathies should lie, a story that builds toward one of the unhappiest "happy" endings in recent memory. 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." In the world of The Brave One, this is easier said than done -- unless you happen to have a few ounces of lead in your hip pocket.
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