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Tuesday 30 September 2014

Vigilante Thriller with Pedigree? - Review of the Brave One

Cover of "The Brave One [Blu-ray]"
Cover of The Brave One [Blu-ray]

Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) is an outspoken radio host. Her expressive opinions on her late night show have recently been focusing on the decay of her neighbourhood. One night she and her partner are victims of a vicious and unprovoked assault. Both are serious injured with only Erica surviving the attack. Struck by fear, she illegally purchases a gun. Finding herself in another violent incident she uses it and begins a life as a vigilante. Meanwhile, Detective Sean Mercer (Terence Howard) is appalled by the corruption he sees around him...


I always find it interesting to see what a very high calibre and respected artist can do with a simple and sensationalist genre. The last 15 years or so have seen an increasing number of writers, directors and actors decide to see what they can do with a populist medium. I would like to think that they were all inspired to do this in the same artistic vein that Alfred Hitchcock, considered by many to be history’s greatest director, decided to tackle a horror with “Psycho”. However, I cannot see Wilhelm Defoe and
Kevin Bacon convincingly make this argument, as their respective agents raised invoices for their work in commercials. There is an entire episode of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s “Hancock’s Half Hour” radio show, where Tony Hancock tries to retain respect as a theatre actor after a commercial appears that seems to have him doing the voiceover.  Alec Guinness never seemed to stop moaning about how he became associated with his role in “Star Wars” despite appearing in all three of the original trilogy that were filmed in his lifetime. The same could not really be said for Patrick Stewart who successfully took the place of and rivalled William Shartner’s position in the other lucrative science fiction franchise, and has gone on to retain the respectability he originally won through his Shakespearean acting. We live in a different age now. Most of the big budget superhero movies star serious dramatic actors rather than bodybuilders and athletes, and not all of them are directed by cynical corporate hacks known for big explosions and zero storyline. Kenneth Brannagh and Christopher Nolan prove this point very well. Despite this, I was still intrigued by Jodie Foster and Neil Jordan deciding to take this particular material on.

As far as I am concerned, Foster is up there with Bette Davis, Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren and Vivienne Leigh in the best actress category. She has also proven herself to be a more than competent director and has won universal acknowledgement for her work. Foster’s education at Yale University, her linguistic skills and the way she has managed her life in general seems to represent an image of someone who is not desperate for work. Her work is certainly regular, but we are not talking Nicholas Cage here. The projects vary, including taking a French-speaking part in “A Very Long Engagement”, and she is not easily dragged into big budget action movies. However, despite a career that defied the tragic child star cliché and has been shining through her teenage to adult years with best actress nominations that have culminated in two Oscars, three BAFTAs and three Golden Globes as well as several other awards, Foster’s selections are not those of a snob.  She might yet to have been pulled into a big budget franchise blockbuster, but genre pictures have never been beneath her and she seems to like science fiction. I guess it is worth remembering that at “The Silence of the Lambs” might have all the techniques of a sharp psychological crime thriller, but at its heart it is a horror and Foster’s second Oscar win came her performance in this picture.

Neil Jordan also counts as one of my favourite artists in the movie-making world. Jordan is grounded and yet imaginative. He always plays to the right side of surreal and has enough control not to pretentiously self-indulge. This level of discipline alone puts him above David Lynch and even Ken Russell. Jordan is accomplished and award-winning screenplay writer and it is this ability that makes most of his works so well rounded in execution. Like Foster, I have been a long-time fan of Jordan’s work. Although, being behind the camera and I didn’t always realize I was consistently enjoying his projects. Now, looking back at his wonderfully eclectic range of material I find myself not being surprised why he would take on “The Brave One”, but rather whether it was a wise choice.

Revenge tragedies are a pretty old and established institution with many of the greats, including Shakespeare, tackling them. However, the movie world often distils them into gory action thrillers that range from B movies to hard boiled blockbusters. Personal justice is a strong and emotive universal theme. From this genre we have seen emerge the subgenre of the vigilante thriller. These stories of avenging individuals who set out to take on the wrongs of the world that the official authorities cannot or will not handle has proven hugely popular. They tend to take two very rough forms. The superhero vigilante fiction sprung from the Dick Tracy era of comic-strips, when the corrupting influence of gangsters and racketeers over official authorities made the general public look towards “untouchables” to enforce justice. I am in agreement with many who see the superheroes of the 20th and 21st century to be latter day manifestations of the multiple gods found in various mythologies. Of course, this is evident in characters like Thor, Hercules, Wonder Woman and Aqua-Man. The other type of vigilante is a more relatable figure. These people are usually unaided by many advantages, and are merely following the line of wish fulfilment that the average enraged member of the public may feel each time they read about injustice. Depending on the writer and director, this second genre can be a massive wet dream for the enraged masses or a moral or psychological examination of what happens when unauthorized people take the law into their own hands.

On paper, “The Brave One” does not stand out as an especially interesting project for Foster or Jordan to handle. The unique slant on the story is that the main protagonist vigilante is a famous radio presenter. This does make the story somewhat interesting by the way it rips open the veneer of untouchability that we can assume surrounds celebrities. Erica Bain, like anyone else, is just as likely to be set upon by thugs when she walks her dog down a subway. The nature of the attack is made more horrific by the totally unpredictable nature of the killing, the extremeness of the violence, the voyeuristic element brought in by one of the thugs who video tapes the whole attack and the way her fit and capable partner is so brutally disposed of. This latter point, of course, brings up the other unusual twist. The vigilante is a woman. There is nothing new in this – I remember a very low budget movie called “The Sisterhood” from the ‘80s – but it is still not common. Most vigilante films are masculine fantasies, empowering regular men to reclaim their position as protectors. However, this film argues that women also have the same insecurities. It doesn’t go the route of maternal rage either. Erica Bain is angered by what has happened to her and when she discovers the ability in herself to take some power back she gets the bug. Unfortunately this is not fully explored. Instead we pretty much go the revenge route with a degree of debate regarding the morality of vigilantism. This gets a bit more analysis than is usual in this type of genre due to Erica using the radio to voice her opinions.

Certain clichés are avoided. We get an affectionate platonic male/female relationship between Erica and Sean Mercer that does not even hint of going in any other direction than one that is borne out of a desire to see justice served. It is quite refreshing to not be bothered by the tiresome will she/will he device going on to please a certain perceived public demand. Terrence Howard should be given a lot of credit here and both he and Foster work well together. Like all the best screen actors, they can convey powerful moments by a look or a pause. There are key moments in the story, particularly in the film’s climax where this is very evident. However, the scene that sticks in my head is the late night telephone conversation.  The violence is not excessive, but it is certainly realistic and works well to horrify when needed yet does not linger unnecessarily.

Sadly all these good points cannot suspend disbelief enough. It's an interesting premise that Erica, who is used to presenting herself to an audience on the radio "becomes someone else" and this is a worthy theme, but it is not strong enough to support the actions of her character. It is not that Foster does not infuse Erica with enough passion and need to become what she becomes, but the storyline is not credible. We are supposed to accept that a traumatized victim of a near-death assault, on the verge of complete agoraphobia would, on her first day out alone following the assault, go with a confirmed criminal down a back alley to illegally purchase a pistol. Surely the trio of writers could come up with a more plausible device than this scene. Then we have to accept that a completely untrained and inexperienced individual can go forward and dispatch violent criminals with said pistol. There is an attempt to make it all sound credible with Sean Mercer telling his colleagues that Erica’s first shooting looks like it had been done by someone who had never fired a gun before. This makes it the flukiest gunfight in history. Finally, we then are expected to believe that Erica, who has spent all of her life up until the assault never being involved in a violent altercation, to suddenly find herself getting into trouble again and again.

“The Brave One” came out the same year as two other vigilante thrillers, “Death Sentence” starring Kevin Bacon and “Outlaw” starring Sean Bean.  Neither of these were particularly remarkable examples from the genre with the former, despite having a literary basis, appearing to be little more than a depressing imitation of “Death Wish” and the latter, despite having some empathetic potential, being a mess of ideas. However, despite not lighting up the box or receiving a lot of critical praise, “The Brave One” earned Jodie Foster another nomination for best actress and it is easily better than “Death Sentence” and “Outlaw”.  Two years later Michael Caine would join in with “Harry Brown”.  Not long ago I overheard a conversation between middleclass mothers, where they were saying how “surprisingly good” “Harry Brown” was. There was definitely something in the air. We worked on a low budget film called “Vigilante” that was inspired by the 2011 London Riots. “The Brave One” is generally better than most found in this genre, but this nearly entirely reliant on Foster’s performance and Jordan’s direction. The storyline wobbles between gritty reality and outright implausibility. Rather than pursuing the psychological angle provided, it takes the moral route. This does not conclude anymore satisfactorily than the majority of similar films.

As far as Jodie Foster’s foray into crime dramas go, “The Brave One” is better than “Panic Room”, which was another puzzling choice, and on a par with “Flight Plan”, but no way near as good as “Inside Man”.  The closest thing Neil Jordan has ever done to this film is his 1986 classic, “Mona Lisa”, and there is no comparison. “The Brave One” is an above average vigilante revenge thriller with strong acting, fluid direction and an interesting if unoriginal premise.

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