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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Cell phones in public places can be remarkably annoying - particularly, I've noticed, when they're not mine - but only rarely are they life-threatening. Still, setting your device to "silent" can occasionally be a good idea, especially if you're shopping in a convenience store where the cashier, a friendly looking Filipina immigrant, is about to get shot to death by her husband.
It's a bit of advice that would have come in more than handy for Erica Bain, a New York City radio host whose own cell phone goes off, rather inconveniently, as she's hiding in one of the aisles near the back of the store. The murderous husband, mourning his wife's death by robbing the cash register, doesn't appear even a little displeased by the discovery that he's not alone, cheerily launching into a game of cat-and-mouse with the mystery woman holding the cell phone.
Bain, however, has several things going for her: It's still early in the movie, she's the protagonist, and - most important of all - she's played by Jodie Foster, whose steely characters, like their names, have only gotten more banal and one-dimensional since the actress stopped playing real characters five years ago. (Her last worthwhile screen effort, 2002's The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, had her in a small but interesting role as a nun named Sister Assumpta).
In the half decade since, the actress has made a specialty of preyed-upon women discovering their strength, an evolution that's admirable in principle but made problematic in the star's newest movie, The Brave One, by the presence of an illegal nine-millimeter handgun.
Previously a starry-eyed lover of New York, Foster's radio host has been transformed since a late-night mugging that put her in a coma and her fiancÃ© (Naveen Andrews of Lost) in the cemetery. Disappointed by the police department's sluggish efforts to capture the perpetrators, Bain tries to buy a handgun legally - and, when that also turns out to be too slow, tracks down the aforementioned nine-millimeter.
From there, it's only a few point-blank shootings before Bain's vigilante work is generating headlines in the New York City tabloids, as well as an avalanche of phone-ins to her radio show. The screenwriters, to their credit, indirectly acknowledge the hoakiness of the scene, having Foster act for the audience as she impatiently cuts off callers and their predictably overheated remarks.
At the same time, though, they've still gone ahead with the contrivances of the scene, giving in to a narrative laziness that emerges again with the false, dissatisfying twist that comes at the end of the movie.
By then, the traumatized radio host has moved from the convenience store killing - a clear case of self-defense - to a set of increasingly cold-blooded assassinations, each of which we're supposed to deem acceptable - or at least sort of acceptable - because Foster's character makes sad facial expressions after they're over.
Though the film presents itself as a nuanced affair, the "victims" in these incidents are all narrowly drawn scumbags - people who wouldn't inhabit the same hemisphere as Erica Bain, it's implied, if the world were an even remotely decent place.
But Bain, unfortunately, has become an increasingly sociopathic problem herself, progressing from unavoidable confrontations to actively hunting down the film's bad guys, endangering, at times, a pair of young women who get in her way.
The female vigilante is a rare and potentially compelling figure, but with Bain's stock dialogue and flirtations with a suspicious crime fighter (Terrence Howard), the character reminded me, frustratingly, more of Catwoman than a heroine meriting real consideration.
The film's moral sloppiness is a shame, because it features - even though it doesn't deserve to - top-notch performances from several of its supporting actors. Mary Steenburgen, so sharp and versatile, proves distractingly good as Foster's radio boss, while Howard, as a detective, deals admirably with his character's unlikely shifts between dimness and acuity.
But despite these performances, someone behind the scenes knew the movie didn't work, setting its closing images against an overwrought Sarah MacLachlan number called "Answer." It's an obvious, unsuccessful attempt to wrap up the vigilantism with grace, but the song nevertheless highlights the film's lack of anything heartfelt to say.
Narrative deficiencies are problematic enough, but the movie's greatest failings go beyond its forced plot. In refusing to evaluate its heroine's behavior, the film offers a moral vision based on reassurance rather than contemplation, on simplicity rather than depth. Morally, at least, this Brave One's a coward.