uperheroine for our age. After a group of stereotypical inner-city thugs rob and beat her and leave her husband-to-be dead, she’s treated coldly by the New York Police Department and chooses to illegally procure a gun to seek an end of her own. We sympathize, sort of, but her subsequent actions overextend our compassion.

Kelly Fraser
Everyone looks good with a gun, right? (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

She’s in nearly every scene of Neil Jordan’s “The Brave One,” the director’s misguided discourse on personal vengeance and the American justice system, and we follow her downward spiral until the end. Once Erica (Jodie Foster, with a trim cut and a persistent grimace) takes matters into her own hands, the entire city becomes obsessed with its new justice-seeking vigilante: press conferences, runaway headlines and water-cooler chats center on the same topic. Can one person take justice into her own hands? Does our society successfully deter crime with the current system? And if not, what else can we do?

The superhero paradigm the film attempts to create in this vein is problematic because the heroine lacks a Lex Luthor or Green Goblin – she takes on every variety of crime New York has to offer. A wise neighbor of Erica’s tells her, “Anyone can be a killer. Each death leaves a hole waiting to be filled.” Erica is a glorified killer, leaving some gaping holes in the movie’s message. What does killing criminals really do for our society? True, the current system is often frustrating and some criminals slip through the cracks, but the fact remains that criminals also have rights. We might root for Erica because we understand her pain and sympathize with her situation, but in the end, isn’t she just another criminal?

Jordan (“The Crying Game”) isn’t dense, and he raises this possibility through whispers among New York City residents, some of whom question the vigilante’s actions. There are also scenes in which Erica is in obvious distress over her actions, and her moral struggle returns in several different sequences. But the film’s final moments strike an altogether different tone, and the air of vindication – even more so, cathartic justification – is unmistakable.

Foster is magnetic onscreen, and her character is complex enough to have many non-sensationalist levels we can relate to. She’s in her element in a role written for her, and it shows. The supporting characters and the actors who embody them, though, don’t contribute much. Detectives Mercer (Terrence Howard, “Crash”) and Vitale (Nicky Katt, “Sin City”) and Mr. Murrow, the corrupt and immoral mogul (whose name coincidentally sounds like “moral” whenever spoken in the movie), only serve to offer black-and-white portrayals of human beings to buoy Erica’s moral struggle.

Jordan, who makes insistently complex and entertaining movies, attempts to take on criminal justice in America here, but oddly for him, he executes it with all the attention of a summer blockbuster.

It’s just not believable as a serious social critique. Not only does it fall short of addressing the root causes of injustice, it glorifies a warped sense of retaliation and even falls into stereotypes. Simple statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice indicate that as of June 2006, an estimated 4.8 percent of black men were in prison or jail, compared to 1.9 percent of Hispanic men and 0.7 percent of white men. “The Brave One” perpetuates resulting stereotypes by portraying the majority of New York City’s violent crime to be black on white.

The ultimate moral message of “The Brave One” is about as corrupt as the system that it attempts to critique.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

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