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Brave One, The (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 14 September 2007
There’s such a gulf between Jodie Foster’s performance in “The Brave One” and the exploitation-thriller script (by Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort) that doesn’t give the film energy—as has happened in similar cases—but instead leaves the film fractured and flawed. The story is basically “Death Wish” substituting Foster for Charles Bronson, but Foster’s performance is so good that it keeps verging on being something more important. It never quite makes it, but you might find yourself hoping it will until it reaches its improbable end.

It’s surprising to find Neil Jordan directing someone else’s screenplay—he usually writes or co-writes his movies—and working for producer Joel Silver. Jordan’s movies cover a broad range of material: “Mona Lisa,” “The Crying Game,” “Interview with the Vampire,” “The Butcher Boy,” “The End of the Affair, “Breakfast on Pluto.” It’s unclear what drew him to this material—possibly the opportunity to work with Foster, already aboard when Jordan signed on. It’s unlikely to have been the story; he tries to enrich the pulp fiction plot, sometimes with flashy camera work (the movie is full of “Dutch angles”), sometimes by concentrating on Foster’s shattered character. But he’s ultimately subverted by the obvious story.

Foster is Erica Bain, a New York city radio show host and personality; every week, she walks the streets with her tape recorder, forging reminiscences, telling bits of city history; it’s a very personal show, and she loves New York. Foster occasionally narrates, but it’s never clear if all her narration is from the radio show (sometimes it bleeds into one of her broadcasts, sometimes it doesn’t). She’s engaged to rugged David Kirmani (Naveen Andrews, from “Lost”), and they live together (complete with dog) with plans to marry secure enough she’s ordered announcements. In these scenes, we see Foster as never before: light, happy, slightly girlish, sensual and relaxed.

All that is destroyed one night. They take the dog for a walk in Central Park, where they encounter a gang of thugs who, just because they can, beat both of them, David so severely he dies, while Erica goes into a coma for three weeks, awakening in a hospital demanding to see David, even after she learns he’s dead. There’s a macabre, disturbing montage: the movie cuts between her being treated for her savage injuries and her memories of making love with David.

She awakes at last to a different world; her fiancé (and dog) are gone, and now when she walks the streets, she’s frightened, withdrawn, a changed person. Impulsively, she tries to buy a gun; when she learns there’s a thirty-day waiting period, she’s disturbed—she doesn’t think she can last 30 days. So she buys a gun illegally—her first step over the line. A wise neighbor councils her, “There are plenty of ways to die. You have to figure out a way to live—that’s hard.”
Erica begins carrying the gun everywhere. She stops at a local convenience store, then a gunman rushes in, shoots the clerk dead and tries to kill Erica, but in self-defense, she draws her gun and clumsily shoots the man, killing him. She’s shocked by her reaction, shaken—but also empowered.

All she has now is her radio show; her supervisor (Mary Steenburgen), concerned about her, tries to talk Erica out of going on the air, but though she comes close to failing, she gamely perseveres, with spontaneous, eloquent comments dealing with her reactions to what has happened, not to the events themselves. Later in the film, her boss insists that Erica begin taking calls from listeners for the first time; most of them want to talk about the vigilante known to be roaming the streets of New York. But this is dealt with hastily, almost perfunctorily.

We’ve also been following the story of very busy NYPD detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard); he’s angry and disappointed about a case we see him handling. A wealthy man he knows is an arms dealer is given custody of his young stepdaughter after her mother apparently commits suicide. Mercer is convinced it was murder, and is sure the child knows something, but he can’t get her to tell him, and he can’t keep the sleazy stepfather from being granted custody of the child. The movie spends enough time with this case we know it will come up again later.

One night as she rides the subway, Erica is confronted by knife-wielding thugs she’s watched terrorize other passengers, who flee. When she’s threatened, Erica shoots both of them dead, then flees, realizing in a voice-over that she could have walked away if she’d shown them her gun. Mercer visits the scene and notices Erica on the street, almost but not quite recognizing her from the hospital.

Soon, Erica is actually looking for trouble; there’s a surprising, exciting sequence in which she saves a young prostitute, Chloe (Zoë Kravitz), from her pimp. This connects with “Taxi Driver,” in which Foster herself was the young whore rescued from The Life by a gun-wielding, self-styled vigilante. Here, Jordan shows he can handle action scenes like a pro, and Foster is scary in her flint-hard inner strength and determination. But even she can’t answer Chloe’s mumbled question, “Is this still America?”

Erica impulsively tries to turn herself in to the police, but a combination of her hesitation and bureaucratic red tape derails her. Meanwhile, Mercer begins to notice that these killings are connected. He again sees Erica, and she interviews him for her radio show; they’re drawn to each other slightly, though on an emotional, not a romantic level. But even as this happens, Mercer begins to suspect that the vigilante the newspapers are trumpeting might be small, slight Erica.

“The Brave One” is very well made, even if Jordan gets unnecessarily flashy at times. It’s focused on its story and intent on its central character—Foster may have more closeups in this movie than any other she’s made. She’s always—absolutely always—an excellent actor, but she’s above her own game here. This is one of her most intense, thoroughly felt performances ever; she brings both her own fragility and her own inner toughness to the surface, blending and shifting them as the character struggles with her unexpected adeptness at killing and her awareness that, though she’s killing bad people, she is still committing wholesale murder.

Foster has never seemed stronger or more deserving of sympathy; her strength gets her through the night and enables her to ward off attacks, but it doesn’t give her any comfort, any way to deal with the ongoing grief over David’s death. She relaxes only when she’s on the air, or talking to Mercer—which finally makes their meetings something of a weakness to the film. Erica tries to contain her emotions, but they show through her tight, clenched face so eloquently it’s almost embarrassing to watch. There won’t be a better performance this year.

In his efforts to make this seem more than just another revenge-killing movie, Jordan sometimes lets the strain show, as with the “Is this still America?” line. Erica’s radio broadcasts and voiceovers are laced with quotations about death and pain. He (or Foster) has something in mind concerning bare arms: after two of the shootings, Erica strips off her jacket down to sleeveless sweaters. Her thin bare arms make her look more vulnerable, but also this seems to give her some kind of strength. The photography is, as mentioned earlier, unnecessarily baroque at times, with many tilted-camera shots intended to express Erica’s turmoil—but Foster can do that more effectively with a few gestures and glances; the Dutch angles are superfluous.

In interviews, Foster seems eager to connect “The Brave One” to “Taxi Driver,” but in Scorsese’s movie, there’s no question that Travis Bickle is a dangerous man who kills bad guys only because he’s scared away from gunning down a campaigning politician. Here, Erica targets bad guys from the beginning; she’s really the vigilante Bickle only seemed to be. So how are we to regard her? In the years since 9/11, life has seemed more uncertain, more fragile, more confusing. We want a hero to sweep up the streets, even a small, blond hero like Jodie Foster. But are we to regard her as a hero, or as a thrill-seeking murderer? Is she one of us or one of them? For most of the movie, it seems clear that we’re to regard her as someone who has gone too far—clearly Erica herself (and Foster in her performance) sees herself that way. But the too-neat and not really believable ending tries something else; it just doesn’t quite fit.

Jodie Foster is small and somewhat fragile; her strong, forceful personality, her commitment to her work and her sharp, agile mind give her strengths beyond the merely physical. Is that why she’s become that rarest of movie creatures, a female action star? With “Flightplan” and “Panic Room” both hits, she and Warner Bros. can’t be held at much fault for a movie that seems to endorse the idea of the public taking up guns and shooting bad guys. And her performances cannot be faulted—she’s outstanding in all of these movies, precisely because she’s small and delicate—and powerfully determined. She’s in her forties now, a mother twice over; she was a child star who made the extremely difficult transition to adult star. Since there are so few good roles for ANY woman over 40, it’s surprising she’s carved out this niche. She should exploit it for all it’s worth; it’s not likely there was another, more worthy, script on Foster’s table. And it IS a well-made, engrossing movie.

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