When it comes to Jodie Foster, I’m not one to run to catch the opening show, and Terrence Howard isn’t exactly a Will Smith, but The Brave One turned out just fine. This is an interesting spin on the old street vigilante concept. By the very nature of the material, this qualifies as pulp-fiction melodrama, no matter how much you dress it up. It’s the stuff of cheap novels and comic books. That’s not to insult the material, because some real classics have come from such origins. I mention this to put the movie into proper genre-context so that it can be more fairly judged. Since this is intentionally a work within the pulp melodrama sub-genre, it needs to be judged not on uniqueness, but on how well it utilizes the basic tools and plot lines of the convention it pays homage to.
After thugs beat her fiancé (Naveen Andrews) to death and give her a beating that temporarily puts her in a coma, New York radio host Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) does the customary thing most people would do: she waits to hear from the police. But she never gets satisfactory answers. So she buys a gun, apparently for her own protection. But when she unwittingly witnesses a brutal murder in an all-night convenience store, Erica rushes into action. She has made her first killing. Soon, she starts offing criminals, convinced that she is saving lives. That’s when detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) enters the scene.
The Brave One stars two-time Oscar winner Foster, who has effectively played the woman under attack in the hit films Flightplan and Panic Room. If you compare The Brave One to the best work of British director Neil Jordan, especially to his The End of the Affair and The Crying Game, you may conclude that the new film lacks the punch and stomach-knotting situations he is noted for. But compare it to most other vigilante films like the recent Death Sentence, and it emerges as a more interesting product, mainly because of solid performances by Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard.
What makes the film superior to other vigilante films is that it is also a bit of a crime thriller — the cat and mouse game here is enlivened by the fact that the killer (Foster) is also a radio reporter. 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 has driven Erica to this. More than anything the film is about dealing with fear and surviving in spite of it. In exploring what it has 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.
On the downside, once the killing spree continues, the film drags and becomes too far stretched. We can easily predict what will happen next in many instances (i.e., when the detective tells her of his frustrations over a mob guy who is guilty as sin in many murders but gets away with the help of his smart lawyer). Most perplexing of all is the last five minutes of the movie, when Howard’s policeman character makes an unlikely decision. His actions undermine some of the realism the rest of the film had worked so hard to lay out.
Despite these weaknesses, The Brave One is not boring. It manages to overcome its’ deficiencies with smart setup work – both on the writing and directing fronts — and strong star performances. Besides, who doesn’t like a good old fashioned vigilante movie, even if it is slightly flawed? I know I certainly do.