Jodie Foster as vigilante? Call it 'Taxi Driver Lite.'
"The Brave One" serves us Jodie Foster as we've rarely seen her: blissfully well adjusted and in a skirt. She practically skips through the film's Manhattan locations in sneakers like the girl she never got to play when she was an actual girl. Her character, Erica Bain, hosts a radio talk show and is crazy in love with a handsome doctor (Naveen Andrews). When they head out to walk the dog in Central Park one evening, they look like they're bouncing to the end of some romantic comedy. In a sense they are, since all this happiness lasts about 15 minutes.
No breezy, beskirted Jodie Foster movie can stay that way for long. Thugs beat the boyfriend to death, take the dog, and leave Erica in a three-week coma. That woman of such exhilarating, if uncharacteristic, lightness emerges from that chrysalis as the iron butterfly we've seen so many times before. Yet once Erica starts conquering her post-traumatic stress by buying a gun and ridding New York of its creeps and crooks, "The Brave One" is no longer just another Jodie Foster picture. It is the ultimate Jodie Foster picture, an entertaining if absurd walking tour of a movie star's psyche and persona.
As a performer, Foster has always been drawn to trauma, to characters whose guard is so irreversibly up that the down setting seems to have malfunctioned. Here she appears to be wrestling with the screen image she's cultivated. Erica's descent into vigilantism, her ambivalence about the thrill of shooting punks on the subway and saving hookers from pimps is fascinating. Not only has the 12-year-old prostitute from "Taxi Driver" become her psychopathic protector, the young star who never wanted to discuss the unwanted attention she garnered from a would-be presidential assassin now seems OK playing a killer.
The movie itself isn't nearly as interesting as whatever it is Foster is trying to work out for its two hours. "The Brave One" is credited to three writers, Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor, and Cynthia Mort; and Neil Jordan directed. They've made "Taxi Driver Lite," as it will probably be called in Martin Scorsese's house. Jordan's movie explains its heroine's violent bender as a matter of personal justice - not as the murderously allergic reaction to the inhumanity of life in a concrete jungle.
Where "Taxi Driver" was driven by atmosphere and character, "The Brave One" is oppressively plot-driven. All the mood is snuffed out. The filmmakers so want Erica's actions to make sense to us that the movie usually seems illogical despite itself. It's not alarming when Erica plugs those two lewd dudes on the subway ("So you gonna give me some Radiohead, too?"). What is alarming is that there's no one else in the station when she gets off. It's that kind of movie.
It's also the kind of movie that shows you how far off the deep end Erica has gone by decorating her very nice apartment with half-empty cartons of Chinese food (yes, the chopsticks poke out of the side). Instead of cruising the city's underbelly in a cab, Erica struts around with a microphone, recording urban sounds and her own musings. At some point, she convinces her boss (Mary Steenburgen) to put her back on the air, and her show, "Street Walk," becomes the public vehicle for her inner thoughts. Her first post-coma broadcast is an awkward tribute to her city. "New York," she says several times before settling on a monologue about her brush with fear. Listening to the words, you might think about Travis Bickle's disgusted "great rain" speech or Woody Allen's stammering visual love letter to New York at the beginning of "Manhattan." Rather than use the opportunity to wed Erica's confessional to images of the city, Jordan keeps the camera on Foster, denying the words their social resonance yet allowing the character to blame the city for giving her a dark side. It's only personal for Erica. She's half Bickle, half Batman.
A lot of "The Brave One," though, is a police procedural, with Terrence Howard playing the lead detective trying to solve Erica's murders. She pretends to want an interview for her show. And I'd like to think he pretends not to know she's killing all these people long enough for the movie to arrive at its stupid, gruesome finale, which is like some Rockstar Games version of the climax from "The Silence of the Lambs." Howard and Foster do have a couple of good, flirtatious scenes together that harmonize their unique approaches to sexiness (he's satin, she's steel).
But those are nothing compared to a scene Erica has in the back of a Town Car with a strung-out hooker. All she does is talk to the girl, who's played by Zoe Kravitz (Lenny and Lisa Bonet's kid), but Foster's husky voice seems meant for this sort of seduction, even though there's not much of a reason for Erica to be this sexual (the movie is so overwritten that you second-guess just about every plot point and behavioral tic). But Jordan goes with it, allowing this short, already suspenseful scene the bonus of containing more true eroticism than all of "Somersby." If the "Taxi Driver" model holds, there's also the added intrigue of Foster communing with herself.
Still, as cracked as Erica becomes, the movie is too meek and Foster too intensely coiled to let the character lose complete control. This is a moral universe over from the one in "Taxi Driver." Erica is a middle-class woman striking out vengefully against New York's lowlifes. That means something completely different from an alienated cabbie doing the same thing. When she's done, you don't expect to see her go to therapy or jail. You expect to see her congratulated on "Oprah."