A distaff 'death wish' runs away with 'The Brave One'


Charles Bronson tapped into the public fear of rising urban crime rates in “Death Wish” by becoming a vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted by sadistic burglars. Understandably, this film is set in 1974, when New York City was rapidly becoming a cesspool as a result of the very worst criminal degradations. Thus, an exploitative thriller connected with the visceral reactions of concerned citizens.

Today, thanks to changes in governance over the last dozen or so years, New York no longer resembles the dark days of rampant criminal enterprise that caused the law-abiding folks to avoid walks in the park or subway rides.

So what do we make of “The Brave One,” arguably an updated Charles Bronson vigilante vehicle not constrained by any gender identity issues?

New York in 2007, and even the Bronx, doesn’t seem threatening in the sense of a war zone, but it does come off that way to Jodie Foster’s Erica Bain, a radio personality who unfortunately discovers the mean streets.

At the opening of “The Brave One,” Erica is madly in love with young Manhattan doctor David Kirmani (Naveen Andrews), as they enjoy romantic interludes while planning their upcoming wedding.

Their absolute happiness carries no warning of danger lurking ahead, even though walking into a tunnel in Central Park at night seems a bit risky. Then the starry-eyed lovers encounter a trio of vicious thugs who deliver physical beatings of such brutal intensity that the scene is disturbingly uncomfortable to watch.

David doesn’t survive the ordeal, while Erica recovers gradually from severe wounds. Not surprisingly, she suffers the most from the painful psychological damage, having lost her loved one and trying to figure out how to cope with life. Returning to her radio job offers no solace, but she soon finds some small comfort in Chinatown when purchasing a handgun on the black market.

As these things happen in the movies, almost immediately she gets a chance to fire the gun in self-defense to ward off an estranged husband who kills his wife, a convenience store clerk, at point-blank range. Though she trembles at first, Erica regains her composure in time to wipe away any traces of her vigilante action.

With blood on her hands, Erica feels liberated and emboldened to ride the subway late at night, not losing her cool when a pair of punks hassle a few riders and steal an iPod. Left alone on a deserted subway, Erica is untroubled by the taunts of the knife-wielding thugs. But, hey, if you remember “Death Wish,” then you already know what is going to happen next. At the next train stop, what you get are a couple of guys riddled with bullets.

Meanwhile, the earnest homicide detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard) starts putting the pieces together, and his investigation begins to heat up just as the tabloids herald the exploits of a vigilante. Erica also becomes an object of Mercer’s attentions, partly because his inner cop voice tells him something is amiss and he knows that Erica has been battered emotionally.

As she attempts to restart her radio career, Erica stumbles during her commentary on New York street life, and on one occasion calls the Big Apple the “safest big city in the world.” The irony could be her efforts to make it so. Det. Mercer listens intensely to her broadcasts, and becomes more intrigued with this enigmatic radio personality.

Oddly, there’s a strange chemistry developing between them, though it remains platonic and grounded in what might be therapeutic sessions of revealing conversation. Interestingly, the story often focuses on the smallest of details that could arouse suspicion in Mercer’s mind that Erica is more than just an emotionally scarred victim.

At times, “The Brave One” aims for a higher plane of artistic endeavor, taking one of Erica’s radio programs into a discussion with random callers about the merits of vigilante justice. But just as quickly the film slides back into the violent confrontations that can only elicit visceral cheers, such as the occasion she rescues a child prostitute from the clutches of a sadistic pimp. As for the thugs that altered her life forever, it is, as one would expect, only a matter of time before the climactic showdown.

“The Brave One” ends in a manner that is too convenient, and therefore not entirely credible. What saves the film from the swamp of excess is that both Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard deliver arresting performances, and we should be grateful for some nuanced acting amidst the carnage.

Tim Riley writes television and movie reviews for Lake County News.