The Brave One
New York Revenge Thriller Wants to Turn the Clock Back
By Cole Smithey
As its blandly heroic title forecasts, "The Brave One" is a revenge fantasy that floats like a narrative helium balloon waiting to find its ceiling. Jodie Foster plays Manhattan talk radio personality Erica Bain, whose poetic "Street Walk" monologue segment invites WNKW listeners to contemplate the "safest big city in the country" with a bittersweet nostalgia for the ripe culture wiped out by corporate ideology. And yes, some of that nostalgia is for the all-night cafeteria atmosphere of pimps, druggies, and prostitutes that inhabited Scorsese’s "Taxi Driver." The movie dredges up the bad old days of perpetual street hassles in the Big Apple, and drops a bag of rotting fruit at the feet of its impressionable protagonist.
Erica is engaged to marry her hunky doctor fiancé David Kirmani (Naveen Andrews), with whom she shares an idyllic romance. We know the relationship is flawless because they profess their love during a not-quite-embarrassing cell phone conversation. They also kiss passioniately. It’s not telling tales out school to reveal that David doesn’t survive an attack in Central Park where the couple walks their dog at dusk. Stranger’s Gate is the Upper West Side park entrance near 106th street that leads the lovers to a tunnel where lowlife thugs steal the dog before video taping themselves beating Erica and David to a bloody pulp. Director Neil Jordan ("Breakfast on Pluto") manipulates the goons’ subjective camera lens to bounce the violence between a snuff-grade video version of events and a more sober celluloid rendition. You can sense Jordan’s attempt to shock the audience but the venture is too mechanical to achieve the level of traumatism he’s after—something that director Tony Kaye accomplished all too well in "American History X."
Some foreshadowing spills over during an art opening that Erica and David attend before the attack where a life-size image of a New York City gun shop publicizes the availability of firearms. It’s a storefront that doesn’t exist in 21st century New York, and it sets off a believability alarm that gets tripped repeatedly throughout the movie. Visual cues match the mean streets of Charles Bronson’s "Death Wish" era Manhattan, but are unrecognizable by modern standards. An element that made "Death Wish" so gripping was its immersion in the authenticity of the time it was made. "The Brave One" is built on apocryphal urban conditions that reflect little of modern New York’s yuppie public landscape.
Jodie Foster’s compelling struggle from shattered victim to hard-bitten revenging angel keeps us focused. Her utter commitment to the role is compulsively fascinating. Foster has aged well—her taut lips and feral eyes threaten to eradicate everything in their path. After holing up in her apartment for weeks after being released from the hospital, Erica finally gets up the nerve to venture out and buy a gun that will give her back some level of confidence. At the gun store, her impatience at obtaining a permit alerts a black market firearm dealer to her desperation. She gets a back alley crash course in loading and firing the 9mm. semi-automatic handgun she buys for a thousand bucks. You can’t help comparing the transaction to the famous scene in "Taxi Driver" where Travis chooses weapons from a smarmy young white businessman in the relative privacy of a ’70s-era hotel room. Erica’s idiocy at purchasing a gun in public when thousands of video cameras record New Yorkers’ every movement is beyond comprehension.
Another "Taxi Driver" analogy comes in a bodega where an enraged husband shoots his wife behind the register where she works. Erica hides from the shooter long enough to line up a series of shots that end his rampage. Where Travis Bickle was something of a hero to the shop clerk that he saved by killing a robber, Erica is a survivor acting in self-defense. Her second act of self-preservation occurs on a nearly empty subway car where she replies with bullets to her attacker’s absurd question about "ever being fucked by a knife." NYPD homicide investigators Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard) and Vitale (Nicky Katt) presume the vigilante killer to be a man, once again reinforcing the film’s dislocation in ‘80s era Bernard Goetz territory, rather than in the 21st century.
Several trashed hooded sweatshirts later, Erica has reinvented herself as a killing machine disguised in eyeliner and lipstick. She pursues a mutual crush with detective Mercer, and goes so far as to interview him for her radio show. In her tainted worldview, exhibiting romantic feelings means killing the wife-beating, drug-smuggling criminal of detective Mercer’s worst nightmares. Hoping that Mercer will bring her to justice, Erica engages in a vicarious retribution-as-relationship substitution that ends with one of the strangest displays of sadomasochism imaginable. At least Erica gets to have her cake and eat it too. People with this much emotional and physical baggage have needs that the audience isn’t expected to understand. They’re not living in the real world.
Rated R. 122 mins. (Three Stars) (B-)