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The latest film from Neil Jordan is called The Brave One, but I'd be willing to bet money that the working title was The Stranger, since the word stranger is used repeatedly throughout the film to describe the alienated condition of the main character, a sotto voce radio personality played by Jodie Foster who turns into a piece-packing thrill-killer after being beaten nearly to death by some punks in Central Park and seeing her fiancé murdered by the same punks. That premise is oddly dated, of course, thanks to the extreme Disneyfication of New York City in the 90s, and The Brave One isn't brave or creative enough to simply posit an alternate 2007 in which those reforms never happened. Instead, the pre-existing societal ills that fuel Foster's character are laid out during a radio commentary she gives over the opening credits: chief among them is the fact that the Plaza Hotel is being closed down and her memories of Eloise are being tarnished! This is Death Wish meets Sex and the City, with all the seriousness that implies.
By choosing not to paint a portrait of a New York roiled by crime again -- at one point, a radio caller notes that the emergence of the vigilante is actually welcome, since New York has become so dull -- the film has little recourse except to make Foster's character one of the most unlucky people alive: after the brutal beating and murder in the park by a small gang of hoods -- her fiancé is played in a few early scenes by Naveen Andrews -- she becomes, in short order, the victim of knife-wielding, would-be rapists on the subway, walks in on a first-degree murder in progress and must defend herself against the killer, and happens upon a murderous pimp who mistakes her for a hooker. It's like a blood-and-guts version of that Lindsay Lohan movie where the main character's luck inexplicably turns to pot overnight. As long as the film has trouble looking for Foster instead of Foster looking for trouble, it's not saying much, really. It's only when her character starts to enjoy the violence that things start to get (mildly) interesting.
Co-starring with Foster is a homicide detective played by Terrence Howard, who happens to be in the hospital when she is first brought in after the beating. His awareness of her as a semi-celebrity causes him to peep in on her hospital room, and the vivid memory of her face, bruised up like purple bacon, forges some kind of subconscious connection between them that carries through the rest of the picture. After she's well, she learns of his assignment to her case and begins to track his movements, activity which he notices and at first chalks up to the routine curiosity of a semi-journalist. Neil Jordan has little choice except to try to make this relationship the film's strong suit, but it's too uneven and too low energy to build up either genuine tension or emotional resonance.
We've all seen this kind of character dynamic played out many times before, in better films -- eventually the cop will be brought along to the point where he has to either implicitly endorse or put a stop to the vigilante's criminal ride. For all its shortcomings, the picture is well-lensed by Philippe Rousselot, who shot Jordan's Interview with the Vampire and worked with Foster on the tepid Civil War mystery Sommersby. There's no jelly on the lens here -- 45 year-old Foster allows the camera to shoot her in extreme close-up for long stretches at a time, and holds up well under the scrutiny. As for Jordan, there's no real directorial malpractice that we can pin on him -- he seems to have done the best he could with what is ultimately substandard genre fare. The Brave One is a picture that rests on a weird foundation -- it desperately wants to have been made 25 years ago -- and it makes occasional grabs at relevance but then realizes how unattainable that goal is and settles in for more bang-bang moments. Those going into this film expecting some kind of corollary to Foster's other film about random violence, The Accused, will be disappointed for the simple reason that that was a serious film, and this is not.
Public TIFF screenings for The Brave One will be held Thursday, September 6th at 9pm and Friday, September 7th at 11:45am.