Friday, September 14, 2007

Jodie gets her gun

Summary: Don't let the pedigree fool you. "The Brave One" stars Oscar-winner Jodie Foster and features direction by the very accomplished Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game"), but that doesn't mean the movie's anything more than an upgraded "Death Wish" wannabe, a vigilante saga that puts a feminist spin onto a decrepit revenge formula. It's all very strange and, I think, unsatisfying: "The Brave One" has elements of an exploitation movie without really being one, and elements of a serious movie without being one of those either.

Jodie Foster kicks plenty of butt in "The Brave One," but her new thriller doesn't really advance the big-screen discussion about violence or vengeance. It's one more B-movie dressed up in A-movie garb, a definite seasonal trend. (I know. I've been on this B-movie kick for a couple of weeks now, but, hey, I don't make the movies.)

If you're looking for better cheap thrills, search out Abel Ferrara's 1981 "Ms. 45." In fact, the thrills in "Brave One" aren't all that cheap. Working with cinematographer Philippe Rouselot, Jordan keeps the proceedings dark, alluring and visually cramped. He nimbly mixes high-impact violence and a sustained sense of dread, and, yes, "Brave One" reaches for more than vigilantism: It screams out with post 9/11 implications, posing a question that's probably meant to speak to us all: What happens when the security of our world shatters beyond repair? How far would we be willing to go to make ourselves secure again?

I had trouble buying the movie as a statement of post 9/11 mood, if that was part of the intention. Using street punks -- a major Hollywood target of the '70s -- to represent the lurking violence that haunts our cities doesn't work. It's old wine in new bottles, yesterday's villains used to evoke today's fears.

Even if you accept them, the movie's ambitions can seem awfully pretentious. Foster's character, Erica Bain, works as a radio personality who tells stories about the city on a program called "Street Walk." Erica's occupation leads to some overly literary mid-picture narration in which she talks about the ways in which violence has turned her into a stranger to herself. It's almost as if the movie tries to pass Foster's character off as a female cross between Albert Camus and Charles Bronson, a mix that's weird, unsettling and unreal.

How does all this happen? Erica's poised for a happily-ever-after life with her finance, a physician played by Naveen Andrews. But Bain's dream shatters when she and her hubby-to-be are mugged and mercilessly beaten while walking their German Shepherd in Central Park. He dies; she spends three weeks in a coma, but lives.

Frightened by the city she once adored, Erica buys a gun (illegally) and proceeds to use it in vigilante fashion. Of course, the script contrives to bring Erica into contact with a variety of miscreants who seem to deserve killing -- or at least a severe thrashing. Where else would she do her first killing but in a convenience store? There, a brutal jerk terrorizes and shoots his estranged wife at pointblank range. Erica, who happens to be in the store, kills in self-defense. Later, though, she saves a teen-ager (Zoe Kravitz) from a seedy pimp, a scene that evokes memories of "Taxi Driver," but not in resonant ways. (Foster played a teen-age prostitute who became the subject of Travis Bickle's delusions in "Taxi Driver.")

Terrence Howard signs on as a detective who listens to Erica's broadcasts. Initially, he -- like everyone else in the movie -- assumes that only a man would go on the kind of killing rampage that occupies Erica's time. Had the movie really developed this idea, it might have been more interesting, but it's tossed in with lots of other ingredients, perhaps to add intellectual weight. The script also tries to create a bond between Foster's Erica and Howard's character; he's a cop who respects the law but gradually learns that it doesn't always lead to justice. Erica's beyond the law, isolated in a world of grief, shock and fear. Early on, she figures out that the law will fail her.

"Brave One" serves up a major helping of Foster, who builds her performance on intense expressions of grief, rage and anxiety. Foster helps paper over some of the script's flaws, but this is the third time in a row that she's gone ferocious in a thriller, having covered similar ground in "Panic Room" and "Flightplan."

The always-capable Jordan has explored violence in movies such as "The Butcher Boy" and has meditated on gender issues in "The Crying Game" and more recently in "Breakfast on Pluto." "The Brave One" struck me as an attempt by Jordan to make a commercial movie that appears to deal with some of the issues that recur in his work. Consider "appears" the operative word: This time, there's not much to be found beneath the movie's often lurid surfaces.

Some of the dialog at the end of the movie seems geared toward satisfying the raw-meat cravings of the exploitation crowd. A preview audience applauded at certain killings, expressing satisfaction with the movie's vengeful denouement. That wouldn't have happened at a better picture and would have happened more often at a worse one.

Here's the deal: I never really believed the movie's reading of the current reality, treating the city as a place of vanishing history and perpetually generated fears. Dramatically, I didn't buy the movie, either. Long ago, Don Corleone -- perhaps the greatest master of vengeance in movie history -- told us that revenge is a dish that's best served cold. That's probably true, and it may explain why calculated vengeance makes for better drama than blind rage from a character whose world turns upside down in an instant.

(For a look at the male side of the revenge equation in a movie that's far worse than "Brave One," see August 28 post, "Armed to the teeth, Daddy's out for blood," a review of "Death Sentence.")

A more convincing look at how people are drawn to violence. Director Shane Meadows travels back to Thatcher's England for a semi-autobiographical tale about a troubled 12-year-old boy, brilliantly played by Thomas Turgoose.
In "This is England," Turgoose's Shaun finds himself drawn into the world of skinheads when Woody (Joseph Gilgun) gives him his first taste of what it feels like to belong to something. Shaun's father was killed in the Falklands; his mother pays too little attention to him. He's alienated at school. Several equally alienated boys become Sean's surrogate family, and the arrangement works for a while because the gang led by Woody is less interested in punk politics than in punk styles. But when the bald-headed Combo (Stephen Graham) returns from a stint in prison, questions of race and chauvinism arise, as do threats of far more serious violence. Combo becomes a father figure to Shaun before a shocking dose of reality rocks the boy's world. Totally authentic in its feeling and scary in its implications, "This Is England" may overreach with its title, but not with its tough, powerfully built story.

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