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With Panic Room, Flight Plan, and now The Brave One, Jodie Foster is on the verge of becoming an action star. And odd career move for an actress on the down side of forty. If she has to get wrapped up in ass-kicking though, The Brave One is the way to do it. The movie takes a familiar genre, the vigilante revenge flick, and for a change takes it seriously. I’m not talking about the way Christopher Nolan takes Batman seriously, after all it’s still a guy in a cape running around overreacting to his parents’ death. Let’s face it, that never made a whole lot of sense. Get over it already Bats. The Brave One is an examination of what it might take for a real person to become a vigilante, an examination of what might drive a normal woman to become judge, jury, and executioner.
The normal woman in question is Erica (Foster), host of a low-rent weekend radio show in New York City and engaged to a sexy, swarthy doctor. During and evening stroll in Central Park, Erica and her fiancée are attacked by a gang of thugs. Her future husband is beaten to death, and she’s left severely injured and hospitalized. When Erica gets out, she’s not consumed by a need for revenge, but rather completely overtaken by fear. The city she’s known and loved her entire life now terrifies her. After several failed attempts she finally makes it out her front door, jumping at shadows and fighting down the constant, overwhelming urge to run home screaming. Her tragedy has left her irrevocably altered, but she’d determined not to let the fear she now feels rule her. So, as so many have before her, Erica buys a gun.
Still frightened but feeling empowered, she walks the city, fighting down her terror until tragedy strikes again. She witnesses a convenience store robbery and in an act of self-defense shoots the robber dead. It’s as if her eyes have been opened to an entirely new world. Erica faced her fears, and shot them dead. Determined never to be afraid again, Erica takes to the streets, intentionally putting herself in more and more dangerous situations as if daring the world to give her its best shot. The criminals of the city are more than happy to oblige, seeing only a seemingly defenseless white woman in a place where she probably shouldn’t be. When she attacks, Erica responds with deadly force, becoming a vigilante. With every encounter she grows more confident, but begins to wonder if she’s losing herself in the process.
Tracked by the police and hounded by her own conscience, The Brave One uses her vigilantism as a way of exploring the terrible emotional toll taken on survivors of violent crime. Whether or not Erica gets the bad guys, or whether or not the police catch her becomes much less interesting than understanding what it is that’s driven Erica to this. More than anything The Brave One is about dealing with fear and surviving in spite of it. In exploring what it’s done to Erica, Jodie Foster gives one of the best performances of her career. So does Terrence Howard as a conflicted, honest police detective who befriends her, and then ends up hunting her.
Director Neil Jordan’s carefully crafted film doesn’t have Jodie Foster swooping down from rooftops on a zip line, but it’s one of the best vigilante themed movies I’ve ever seen. The Brave One takes a fairly obvious, overused movie conceit and uses it to explore something much deeper and more real than you’d ever expect. That only serves to heighten the film’s tense, utterly believable action sequences, even if they aren’t the real focus of the script. If there’s any flaw in the movie at all, then it happens in the last five minutes when Howard’s policeman character makes an unlikely decision. His actions undermine some of the realism of the rest of the film has worked so hard to set up, but those five minutes aren’t enough to kill the smart work that came before it. Before you get all excited about the next man-in-tights superhero flick or watch Kevin Bacon shave himself bald and put on revenge-themed eye makeup for Death Sentence, make it a point to seek out The Brave One.