'Brave One': You might hate yourself for loving it

I should, you should, we all should hate "The Brave One," starring Jodie Foster, for it celebrates the assassin's cold rage, superb shot placement (eye, ear, nose and throat), the adequacy of the 9mm as a tactical choice and, if not the civic virtue of revenge, at least its primal emotional power.

But it's hard to hate, because as a rabble-rouser it is superbly effective, driven forward by two powerhouse actors in a big Hollywood style by old pro Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game"), with a lot of comic banter among the stars and co-stars, and, under it all, that sense that a crime so vile has been committed that only hot blood in lakes steaming on an asphalt alley will quell the demons.

It's also great Jodie Porn, for those of you who have a more than cinematic attachment to this tiny, singular actress' odd journey through civilization, her connection with a famous movie and then a famous crime and her later connection with a famous crime movie. So in an impressionistic way, her presence lends more emotional charge to the movie than any other actress' would have, on issues having to do more with history and psychology than with talent.

Then there's her most provocative near-affair with co-star Terrence Howard as the detective who is chasing her but also in love with her. Howard is a soft and sensitive presence with a thoughtful stillness, a good match for Foster's twitchy intensity. Consumed by ethical dilemmas, mourning a shattered marriage and a lethal threat to a child witness he can't protect, he's suffered psychic damage that almost hides his first-rate cop mind. He also has a nice relationship &

needling, masculine, snarky &

with a junior partner played by the great Nicky Katt. Superb cast; Charles Bronson never had this much talent around!

Foster plays Erica Bain, a Manhattan radio personality in the dulcet, soothing glades of NPR. The movie isn't trying for satire; it's not playing to the cheap seats by offering up that broad description of a liberal as a NPR-lifer Brie-slurping surrender monkey, then watching smugly as, mugged, she becomes a pistoleer and NRA poster child. The movie instead sees beyond the stereotypes. The movie is saying: In the real world, liberals DO get mugged, just like everyone else.

First seen, she's reading poetic essays punctuated by recorded ambient sound over the airwaves. She's a star. She's engaged to a doctor (Naveen Andrews, best remembered from "The English Patient"). One night, in a New York so perfect it could be in a nostalgic Woody Allen rhapsody like "Radio Days," they are out with doggy, venture into a Central Park tunnel and find themselves abruptly not in Hell's Kitchen but in its stove.

The crime is ultra-violent, ultra-arty. Jordan cuts between the blows being rained down on the uber-yuppies and the video version taped by one of the muggers. But this isn't where a lick of raspberry jam on the corner of the mouth stands for grosser injuries. It's one where the injuries are so clinical and dehumanizing it breaks your heart; at the same time, inside, you are crying havoc and unleashing the dogs of vengeance.

Shattered, she begins a slow recovery. Her fiance is dead. The movie is exquisite at capturing the hypersensitivity of the damaged and bereaved person (I know this from experience) particularly as it encounters the very system that failed, which now demands obedience in small, silly ways in the wake of its failure. Thus a functionary stating "Please sit over there and wait until the officer arrives" seems like a soul-deep insult. Paranoia also creeps in, and Jordan's subjective camera lets us feel Erica's new reality, where every footfall announces the presence of a potential new attacker.

She needs something to anchor herself to a rapidly diminishing reality.

She chooses a gun.

The movie doesn't fetishize the gun (a smallish, uninteresting 9mm automatic) and push the tired line that the gun seduced her into violence. She wanted the gun, so much so that she paid three times its value to a street hustler. So much for gun control: It takes about two minutes.

For a time the film feels like the fabled "Taxi Driver," with Foster in the De Niro role: We track her wandering through the mad, strobing city (overdone, phantasmagorical cinematography by Philippe Rousselot clearly modeled on Michael Chapman's in "Driver"). She mutters madly to herself, though her diction is higher-toned than De Niro's as Travis Bickle. The first shooting is almost a carbon copy of Bickle's: In a convenience store late at night, a robber assaults (and kills) the store clerk, then stalks her. She hits him &

throat shot &

and watches as he dies pathetically in the pool of his own very red blood.

The next gun exercise takes place aboard a subway train where two monstrous thugs come for her, knife ready, cooing dirty, pretty little things. She replies in the language of small pieces of supersonic lead.

At that point she's become a hunter, and like Bronson in the similarly themed but far cruder "Death Wish," she seeks out the bad, the badder and the baddest.

Of course the movie cheats, signifying the weakness of its own argument. Yes, revenge is swell, if like Erica you can use it against a profusion of criminals so vile yet colorful they seem to have stepped out of "RoboCop." But what if one bullet bounces this way and that and clips the spine of the orphan with the piano scholarship to Juilliard? Then the argument becomes difficult to sustain.

What makes the movie work isn't the cerebral horsepower but the firepower. Jordan has thought a lot about the kinesthetics of violence, and after the staggering energy loosed against the innocent in the first mugging, he becomes more judicious, usually building the shooting sequences through dynamic cutting so that they reach a moment of perfect release. That moment is the strike of the slug against the body, and it's always a new and unpredictable place, an explosion of bone and flesh that yields a little skyrocket of plasma in an unexpected yet satisfying direction.

You may hate yourself for yielding to the expertise of the manipulation, but the vicarious thrill of "The Brave One" is the sense of pulling your own trigger on pure evil and watching the bullet tear through. Watch yourself or you'll be cheering at the last, best shot.

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