OK, the gun-toting vigilante here is played by Jodie Foster, and it's unsettling that most of us first saw her playing the young hooker Iris in Taxi Driver. But that's the lone connection.
The strongest resemblance that The Brave One has to anything else is to The King of Marvin Gardens, the 1972 film starring Jack Nicholson as a long-winded, meandering radio show host. The host in this one is Erica (Foster), who, when not traipsing around New York, then later sharing rambling thoughts about her city on the air, spends happy times with her doctor boyfriend David (Naveen Andrews, from Lost), who keeps trying to get her to marry him.
But a late-night walk in Central Park results in a horrific robbery and David's murder. Erica's world falls apart. She can't work; she has difficulty entering the apartment that she and David shared; everything she sees and hears is too bright, too dark, too loud, too tentative. She truly is alone. But to the cops, she's also just another unsolved case.
So what's a good, strong American gal to do? Buy a gun! Which, it turns out, is much easier to do under the table than legally. Which, because she saw the thugs that attacked her, is what she decides she needs in order to make things right.
But there are many other wide-open cases in Manhattan, like the nasty abuse-murder crime that Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) is presently trying to solve. Mercer's a great cop, one whose mind is always ticking, always making connections. But he's also reeling from his own personal loss: His wife recently divorced him.
Before these two kindred spirits get together, Erica has already used her new gun in a case of self-defense. But it doesn't take long for her to fall under its spell. Soon she has used it a second time. She begins to wonder why her hands don't shake after she pulls the trigger, asking herself, "Why doesn't someone stop me?"
When Erica and Mercer do finally meet, he reveals that he's a fan of her show, and she asks if she can interview him for it. That's about as light as this grim story gets, except for a couple of funny bits with Mercer and his partner Vitale (Nicky Katt) sharing some morbid comical banter when they're around dead bodies.
Howard's performance -- as a cop who's seen too many of those bodies and whose personal life isn't functioning well -- is a solid one. Foster, rough and tough, is at the best she's been since her previous law enforcement character in The Silence of the Lambs. She was tough there, too, but she let a helpless side peek through. Not here, though. She gives Erica an unyielding determination. Her big, angry blue eyes are off-putting, and when she adds a slight squint to them, she becomes downright frightening. But, to her credit as an actor, there isn't a moment in which the audience isn't on her side. The scenes with the two leads, both plagued by demons, just sitting and talking, are among the film's best.
When director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy) ramps up the action in the final reel and turns a leisurely film into an exercise in nail-biting, it all gets even better.
Critics are disagreeing about the ending of The Brave One, and they've been split right down the middle in loving it or dismissing it. Here's my contribution: It's very rare to get an ending as good as this one. Only those viewers without a soul will dismiss it.