Neil JordanÂs The Brave One is insipid, audience-pandering trash, but IÂll be damned if it doesnÂt unspool with the confidence of a classic thriller. ItÂs artificial, shallow, contrived, and as manipulative as a stump speech before disabled veterans, but it never lets the viewer off the hook. As such, it works when it should fail, and on whatever side one falls regarding the morality of vigilante justice, thereÂs a piece of wisdom in there for everyone. Cowards will take the easy road, claiming that Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) is a symbol of extremism gone too far, and that herÂ immersion in revenge signals her betrayal of decency and humanity. ÂSheÂs become what she hates,Â theyÂll cry, forgetting entirely that Bain only kills people in the act of committing crimes themselves, or, finally, those responsible for her coma and her boyfriendÂs violent death. So yes, she is legally guilty of murder in the first degree again and again, but her ÂvictimsÂ have all the depth and sympathy of ducks in a shooting gallery. They are stripped of any real identity, given mere snarls and hostile gestures as ÂtraitsÂ, and hit their marks until they are dispatched with full audience participation. It should surprise no one that by the end, viewers were applauding as if swaying in time with a rock concert, and though instinctively embarrassed at such mindless worship, I eventually saw their point. Why not kill violent sociopaths, rapists, muggers, and pimps? As long as Uncle Sam is staying out of it, who am I to interfere with an aggrieved AmericanÂs right to feel whole again?
The first sign of trouble is in EricaÂs relationship with David, her devoted boyfriend. Her future husband is not only a doctor, but exotic, handsome, wise, and, from all appearances, the best lover since Don Juan. After all, during brief snippets of memory (heÂs already dead by this point), he manages to arouse a confirmed lesbian, and IÂm pretty sure heÂs using his penis. We never get to know this man, but heÂs perfect to her, and thatÂs all we need to see. Anyone in possession of more complexity would complicate our response, and we are simply not allowed to question the righteousness of her mission. Brutes took away the greatest human being who has ever lived, and only a morgue teeming with fresh victims will set things right. On the night of his death, heÂs even so gracious as to make out with Erica in the park, sharing a blissful stroll with their perfect dog. They hug, talk about wedding announcements, and make eyes as if in that first blush of romance. And if Hollywood history has proven anything, it is that the illusion of perfect bliss must immediately be followed by heartache, sadness, and brutal violence. Just like marriage. Only thereÂll be no wedding day for these two. Instead, the couple have the misfortune of meeting up with a gang of booze-sipping toughs, all of whom are vaguely ethnic, but could easily be confused for skinheads inÂ a certain light. At first I thought they were white,Â which prompted me toÂ mumble something about political correctness gone wild and the fear on the part of the filmmaker to risk charges of racism. But then the scoundrels retreated to Spanish Harlem, and I sighed with relief. Yeah, like youÂre not thinking the same thing.
When Erica awakens from her unconscious state, she is greeted with the usual loneliness, frustration, and anger of the recently widowed, though she manages to return to her job as a radio host. Her program, ÂWalking New YorkÂ, is one of those dry NPR type shows where poetry substitutes for actual substance, and the tone of her voice manages to leave listeners with the impression theyÂve been treated to something other than sheer rambling. But as her opening narration reveals, thereÂs an inner tension with the city she loves, only the depth of that estrangement is yet to come. She seems to suggest that New York was a better town when it buzzed and chirped with crime, eccentricity, and madness, but sheÂd likely say the opposite now. SheÂs even surpassed Rudy GiulianiÂs old clean-up program, this time actually killing the squeegee men. As usual, though, those who romanticize grit and grime usually do so from air conditioned offices, and Erica is no exception. Now that sheÂs had her liberal condescension fully tested by a random attack, she can come out as a reactionary, trigger-happy conservative. ItÂs what we all are under the covers as the shadow of fear inches ever closer, and the instinct to ÂcorrectÂ merely needs the right opportunity to be unleashed. SheÂs D.H. LawrenceÂs image of America made flesh: hard, stoic, and all-too-much the killer.
As expected, the film has the usual police incompetence (theyÂre Âworking on it,Â when Erica knows damn well the killers wonÂt be caught anytime soon), the press conferences, the defensive detectives, and even the man of the law who at first befriends, then suspects Erica, all because heÂs vulnerable too, what with the recent divorce and all. HeÂs played by Terrence Howard, and while well-acted and convincing, itÂs nothing more than a stock character in search of a little dignity. HeÂs there to tease us with romantic possibilities, only to beÂ pop upÂ for the Âover coffee speechÂ, where he tells Erica that if he knew a friend was guilty of a crime, heÂd still do the right thing and put them under arrest. By the end, that promise is put to the test,Â which he fails with flying colors after letting her go freeÂ and staging the final bloodbath to look like “gang warfare”, even taking a bullet for good measure. HeÂs a good cop, but he loves this kind of justice more, as IÂ suspect some cops do when the shades are drawn. Sure, they hate being embarrassed by more efficient civilians, but thereÂs not an officer alive who hasnÂt hoped for a free pass regarding scum removal. You can see it in MercerÂs eyes; he admires the gal for her balls, and itÂs not as if sheÂs a serial killer targeting kids or anything. At the point when he knows itÂs her (a contrivance on a phone call leads to his epiphany), he has heard her story, seen her face now lined with pain, and heÂs in a forgiving mood. In his mind, the final killings bring closure, but her closing narration reveals something else entirely. A sequel? Not likely, but hereÂs hoping she continues to roam the streets and subways of her fair city like a perverted Robin Hood, taking and restoring in equal measure, always with one eye on fair play.
So who does Erica kill and why should we care? After buying a gun on the black market for $1000, she just happens to be in a liquor store when some loony, estranged husband comes in, screams at his Vietnamese wife about child custody (sheÂs working the register), and plugs her in the chest and abdomen. Erica witnesses the murder, but tries to hide behind some shelves. She plays hide and seek for a few minutes, then, sensing an opening, fires three times through some bottles and bags. HeÂs hit once in the throat, and she flees the scene, pausing only to collect the surveillance tape. She was nervous as hell throughout, but now having taken a life, sheÂs not about to let unsteady hands ruin her aim everÂ again. The transition from scared rabbit to Dirty Harry is unconvincing to say the least, but it fits just the same. One of the big lies — and great applause lines — of these movies is in making killing seem easier than it really is. Sure, the first one is the hardest, but is the path from humanitarian to hard-ass that unencumbered? WeÂd like to think so. Erica then moves to the subway, where sheÂs able to emulate Bernard Goetz in even more heartless fashion. Still, she shoots the one kid because he has a knife to her throat while he casually inquires, ÂHave you ever been fucked by a knife?Â His disposal is a no-brainer. The second kid? Yeah, heÂs a sassy Negro and, we come to learn, has a rap sheet a mile long, but Erica could not have known that. He was unarmedÂ and retreating, so he was shot purely for sport. While FosterÂs wax faÃ§ade betrays nothing, we are led to believe that with each killing, sheÂs a bit moreÂ depravedÂ than before. If this is her dehumanization, I see no evidence to justify that conclusion.
Next, Erica guns down a sleazy pervert while in his back seat trying to lure away a stoned prostitute. So yes, thirty-plus years later, she has doubled back and pulled her own Travis Bickle. But rescuing this Âlittle piece of chickenÂ is just as difficult, and she has to not only dive out of the way of the manÂs car, but blast his ass through the windshield, an act which causes his car to flip over in a ditch. Again, the deck is outrageously stacked, as we couldnÂt possibly care for these low-lifes who make hasty departures for hell. Or is that the point? Make the Âbad guysÂ so repellant that weÂll have our noses rubbed in the fact that yes, even our worst offenders deserve a fair trial. I agree in principle, but EricaÂs just so darn cute with that pixie haircut that, well, the Constitution seems so quaintly abstract by comparison. Then, before the final piece of the puzzle falls into place, Erica butchers a sleazy con-man who exploits women, imports drugs, and just might have killed his ex-wife. MercerÂs been after the bastard for years now, but the law canÂt seem to touch him. Erica pays him a visit, slams a crowbar into his skull, and pushes him over the edge of a parking garage. It is during this killing that EricaÂs secret is revealed to Mercer, as he hears the ding of an elevator when she claims to be at home in bed. She had called him to seek comfort, but itÂs really more of a confession; a desire for approval at what is being done in his name.
At last, when Erica is able to locate those who actually killed her sweetheart — thanks to a pawned ring — she sets the theater on fire with callous efficiency, as bullets enter eyes, hearts, and heads, all to the approval of every paying customer within shouting distance. By all appearances, this was the feel-good hit of the year, leading me to believe that if Americans are ever to be enlisted for any great cause, they must first be promised at least a hand on the switch. Erica gets the address by bullying one of the killersÂ girlfriends, but even this reeks of the implausible, as I know all about the no snitching rule that dominates such areas. But to send it by text message, knowing full well that it would spell his doom? Not bloody likely, even in a fantasy world where such a chick isnÂt pregnant or hauling around the visible reminders ofÂ her recent affirmation of Catholic doctrine. But itÂs all about reaching the climax, and even that requires the standard scene where the hero canÂt get into the security building but, despite the late hour, someone just happens to be walking out, and Erica is able to slip through the closing door. Remarkably, as she eyes the men, she also sees her long lost dog, who is still in great shape, if only because itÂs not a fighting breed. Mercer, having followed his hunches, which led him to this same ghetto complex, confronts Erica as sheÂs about to blast the third and final scumbag. They shout, plead with each other, and sweat profusely, until at last Mercer does the reasonable thing and hands her his gun with which to take care of business. And then the wound, the planting of the gun, wiping off some prints here and there, and Erica is free at last. A hostage only to her new found lust for bloodshed. SheÂs earned it.