The Reeler


September 13, 2007

The Brave One

Jordan and Foster indulge in vigilante justice and nostalgia-busting for pre-Giuliani New York

Earlier this year, an understandably cranky Grady Hendrix noticed that Grindhouse was provoking inexplicable faux-nostalgia for that shitty bygone institution, mostly from people who weren't there the first time around. "Grindhouse theaters were nasty places," he wrote, "full of nasty people, and most of us wouldn't be caught dead in one."

This lesson about one of the '70s key signifiers of decay can extend to feckless nostalgia for pre-Giuliani New York. (I don't have an opinion, not being even a fetus at the time.) If you really miss the heady energy of that old New York, check out The Brave One -- a movie ostensibly set in the present-day (post-9/11) metropolis, but with a crime rate straight out of Death Wish, the seminal 1974 Charles Bronson movie about killing scumbags on the subway. Here, Bronson is replaced by the prettier Jodie Foster, who attracts crime like a magnet attracts iron fillings. “Still feel nostalgic?” the movie seems to leer.

That's the charitable interpretation. A less generous one is that The Brave One is a howlingly misguided allegory about vengeance -- file alongside Hostel, The Devil's Rejects, Death Sentence -- i.e. genre pieces doubling as (hopefully) serious considerations of America's war policy. The Brave One doesn't play genre games though; instead, it gives us public radio host Erica Bain (Foster) as a banal NPR type who wanders around the city capturing the sounds of dying New York, or some garbage like that. But dying NYC gets up in her face when Erica and fiancé David (Naveen Andrews) take a late-night stroll in Central Park's more deserted areas (who does that?) and some thugs beat him to death and her into a coma. Erica wakes up, gets a gun, and gets busy.

Erica doesn't even try to attract crime; "am I finding these things, or are they finding me?" she muses, which sounds like it might be meaningful until you realize that it's just script contrivance giving her the possibility of enacting the same scenario over and over again. She goes to a bodega; someone shoots the clerk. She gets on the A to Church St.; someone tries to mug her. (Shades of Bronson's late-night subway patrol.) She walks down the freakin' street; someone thinks she's a hooker and locks her in the car. Parents having recently sent their precious kids off to NYU will probably be the only ones to freak out or take it seriously.

Even as a dream consideration of the pros and cons of the vigilante lifestyle, The Brave One is a heavy-handed mess. Director Neil Jordan, no technical slouch himself, sets up a compelling visual framework with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot to evoke Erica's growing paranoia in previously familiar-seeming environments, the camera woozily tilting and swooning on even a sunny midday street. But that careful work is undercut with too-blunt visuals -- a 9/11 memorial wall at a police station, the prominence of flags on subway cars -- and trite dialogue. '80s subway hero/vigilante Bernhard Goetz is invoked, Erica snaps constantly about how you can't do things legally and her radio show gets increasingly "AM confessional," as her disapproving producer (Mary Steenburgen) puts it. At one point, Erica's landlady informs her that "You shouldn't smoke. It'll kill you. There are plenty of ways to die. You have to figure out a way to live." Please.

The audience at the screening I attended wasn't having it; they cheered on every killing and laughed at the risible ending, which is as it should be. Only Nicky Katt, as the most sarcastic cop ever, pumps any life or humor into the scenario. (His partner, Terrence Howard wastes another terrific performance on lousy material.) After two hours of hand-wringing, the moral of The Brave One comes clear: Killing a bunch of people can take a toll on your soul. Great. Bring back Bronson.

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