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‘The Brave One’ is a muddled mess

Film seems to celebrate vigilantism without asking the hard questions. By Alonso Duralde

Remember those old World War II movies, where there’s always that one fighter pilot who has to fly one last mission before going home and marrying his high school sweetheart? You know how that guy always dies? The writers of “The Brave One” put a similar whammy on Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) — first, Erica delivers a murmuring Valentine to the wonders of New York on her NPR show, then she picks out wedding invitations while her hunky fiancé David (Naveen Andrews) tells her they should forget the invites and just run off to City Hall and get married. Is it any wonder these two get jumped by a trio of thugs in a park that very night?

David is murdered in the brutal attack, while Erica winds up comatose for three weeks. When she regains consciousness, she can barely leave the house, due to a potent case of PTSD. In her state of panic, she buys a black-market gun — and before long, she’s using it.

Her first kill is self-defense, when a deadbeat dad comes into a bodega and kills his wife behind the counter; the second one involves scary thugs on the subway. (Erica could have fled at a previous stop but instead decides to stick around and force a confrontation.) After that, she goes out looking for trouble, wondering in the narration, “Why don’t my hands shake? Why doesn’t someone stop me?”

Pursuing the vigilante is detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard), who also happens to be a fan of Erica’s radio show. Eventually, he starts piecing together that the shooter isn’t a man — and that it is Erica — and she knows he knows. Will Erica make a mistake so egregious that Mercer will be forced to arrest her? And is Mercer up to it?

Without going into spoilers, let’s just say that the film sets up big issues without really wanting to address them. Foster — who shuns press, except when she doesn’t — has given interview after interview expressing her hope that the movie doesn’t condone vigilantism, and while “The Brave One” isn’t exactly pro-gun propaganda, its sense of exhilaration over revenge and empowerment outweighs its nagging sense of guilt that we, the audience, shouldn’t be enjoying any of this. And the story’s finale is riddled with staggering cop-outs that completely sidestep the hard questions about Erica’s choices, hand-wringing voiceovers aside.

Perhaps it’s not surprising — as an indie filmmaker, Neil Jordan has created modern masterpieces like “The Crying Game” and “The Butcher Boy,” but when he goes to work for big studios and commercial producers, he delivers dross like “Interview with the Vampire.” It’s the aesthetic of producer Joel Silver — the huckster behind such cerebral fare as “Predator” and the “Lethal Weapon” series — and not Jordan that seems to have sway here.

Foster commits to the role, although she’s obviously more comfortable playing Erica the victim than Erica the happy bride-to-be — there are many notes that Jodie Foster excels at playing on-screen, but “effervescent” isn’t one of them. Between her mumbling and Howard’s constant whispering, you’ll be reminded of that old “SCTV” sketch where they do the Ella Fitzgerald Memorex ad, only with Rickie Lee Jones and Tom Waits.

“The Brave One” wants desperately to be a story about female empowerment, about vigilante justice, about the inadequacies of law enforcement. But the result is a dopey action movie featuring the contributions of people too talented to waste their time on something this risible.