The short version: a generic story is greatly bolstered by two strong leads.
In the vengeance thriller The Brave One, radio show host Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) and her fiance (Naveen Andrews) are brutally assaulted by a trio of thugs one night as they are walking through Central Park. The attack leaves him dead and her beaten, bloody, and barely alive. When she awakens from a three week coma, Erica finds that her happy, ordinary life has been replaced by an unfamiliar feeling of fear. Constantly plagued by this internal terror, she buys a gun, and is subsequently caught in the middle of another violent altercation. But this one has a different outcome, with her gunning down an assailant in self-defense. The lethal episode emboldens her on some level, and she begins to place herself in harm's way more and more, resolving each dangerous situation with a vigilante brand of justice. It's not long before she finds herself leading a twisted double life as an executioner, entangled in the consequences of righteous murder. Further complicating things is her newly forged friendship with a Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard), who begins to suspect that she is a killer in disguise.
As is typical in the revenge genre, The Brave One suffers from the lopsidedness of having a complex, fully developed lead character fueled to insane lengths by the death of an under-developed peripheral character. In this case, the dubious distinction of the latter goes to Erica's fiance, played by Naveen Andrews (TV's Lost). The character, who is a doctor with a slightly cocky demeanor, gets snuffed out in short order, and yet audiences are expected to sympathize with Erica's loss just because they argue over wedding invitations and have sex in a flashback sequence (although with all the heartstring music and gentle lighting, I guess it's supposed to be less "having sex" and more "making love"). The perfect couple routine is joined by a host of other cliches, and the criminals Erica encounters are every shade of one-dimensional villainy available, from the grungy wifebeater to the hip hop street gangsta, from the mob overlord to the gangbanger Latino.
But what elevates the movie from generic formula to compelling entertainment is the quality of the lead performances. Jodie Foster completely sells it, deftly portraying Erica as a sympathetic avenging angel haunted by her own actions. She is wholly believable as both a thinker with a poetic streak and a kickass vigilante, and when Erica mourns over the blood she sheds, Foster conveys a strong sense of remorse rather than just a token "violence is not the answer" hypocrisy. Even when she has to deliver a cheesy one-liner like "You wish" in response to a bad guy's question of "Are you a cop?", it's still cool because it's Jodie Foster bringing down the hammer. Just imagine that same line being read by a bad actor, and you'll realize how critical the cast was to this film.
Terrence Howard also nails it, with his character filling the roles of Erica's confidante and moral compass. Like Foster, he brings a depth to the character that would not have been there with a lesser actor.
As a side note, fans of TV's Boston Public will be happy to know that Nicky Katt, who plays Mercer's partner in homicide investigation, Detective Vitale, delivers the trademark sarcasm he demonstrated on the series as maverick high school teacher Harry Senate. (I was originally going to say that the only difference between Senate and Vitale is that Vitale brings a gun to work. But...you know...)
Ultimately, the The Brave One's resolution materializes in a rather sugary, Hollywood fashion, going for the easy win by giving audiences what they want. It might have been interesting to see what would have happened with a more ambiguous and morally tumultuous ending. But while part of me would have preferred to see a daring, unexpected departure, I have to admit that I found a certain satisfaction in the loose ends being neatly wrapped up, with everyone getting their due. What we get is sufficient, and there's even a bit of a twist that should have audiences cheering...Or, at least, grinning ear to ear.
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