Okay girls and boys, today's lesson is on the "organic nature" of film. I know, I know, I know, the "organic nature" of anything--including film--sounds like some pretty boring crap; and all you really wanted to know was if The Brave One was any good. But the truth is that knowing about the organic nature of film is kind of important, and understanding it makes it easier to understand why The Brave One, while being an earnest attempt at quality filmmaking, is actually pretty bad.
The best way to explain the concept of the organic nature of film is to say that every movie sets out to be "something." That "something"--in the simplest sense--is the film's genre. In other words, a comedy sets out to be a comedy, while horror film sets out to be a horror film, and so on and so forth. Sometimes a film can set out to be more than one "something"--that's to say it can be more than one genre. Shaun of the Dead is a great example of a movie being more than one "something."
The problem with some films, however, is that they often are one thing, but try to be something other than what they are. Two great examples are Death Sentence and The Brave One. Both films are the most recent incarnations of the urban vigilante flick, which was popularized by 1974's Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson. Death Sentence was a terrible film for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was director James Wan's inability to make anything other than a low-rent horror film. Wan's pitiable lack of talent resulted in a film that wanted to be a vigilante thriller, but was ultimately nothing more than a thinly veiled horror film with sneering inner-city gangstas instead of monsters. Clearly Wan was a director that only had a barely functioning knowledge of what it takes to make a horror film work, and he clumsily attempted to use those same tools to build a completely different type of movie. The result was a craptacular mess.
By contrast to Death Sentence, The Brave One was at least made by someone who is not cinematically illiterate. Directed by Neil Jordan, whose best known film achievement is The Crying Game, The Brave One also suffers from not being what it is cinematically supposed to be. The difference between the failures of each film's organic nature is that Death Sentence was made by someone who seemingly didn't know how to do anything but a bad horror film, and that The Brave One was made by someone who foolishly tried to make something more out of the material he had.
Jodie Foster stars as Erica Bain, a New York City radio show host who poetically waxes rhapsodic about the Big Apple on a program that you would only hear if you listened to NPR. Erica is happily engaged to David (Naveen Andrews), and the two are headed for a life of marital bliss. But things go tragically wrong when the couple run afoul of a gang of one-dimensional thugs in Central Park that savagely beat Erica and David, leaving her in a coma for three weeks, and killing him. When Erica awakes from her coma, she is forced to re-enter the world as a scared victim whose fears leave her disconnected from humanity and spiraling out of control. When the pills she keeps popping aren't enough to get her through the day, Erica procures an illegal firearm, and it isn't long before she is letting the hot lead fly, leaving a trail of dead criminals in her wake. Meanwhile, NYPD Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard), a brooding man haunted by the demons of his past and obsessed with one of his old cases, finds himself investigating a series of vigilante-style murders. These killings, of course, are the result of Erica's newfound form of therapy. Mercer and Erica cross paths, forming an odd relationship; but the more he gets to know her, Mercer begins to suspect his new friend of being the vigilante that he is hunting.
If any of this sounds familiar, it would be because The Brave One is little more than a rip-off of Death Wish, with Jodie Foster cast in the Charles Bronson role. (If my plot description doesn't sound much like Death Wish, then please know it is the result of my poor writing.) The biggest difference between The Brave One and Death Wish--other than Bronson being slightly more masculine than Foster--is the relationship between Erica and Mercer. But even that is stolen from Death Wish, which co-starred Vincent Gardenia as Detective Frank Ochoa, the cop who ultimately discovers that Bronson is the vigilante. In Death Wish the two men never become friends, whereas in The Brave One the cop and the killer become kindred spirits of a sort. Yet despite this developmental plot difference, both films have the relationship ending in almost the exact same way.
Where The Brave One fails--and this is where we learn about the organic nature of film--is that it is in every way, shape and form a B-grade exploitation flick. It is Death Wish in a dress. But it denies its very nature, and sets out to be something else. Specifically, The Brave One wants to be an art film. Everything from the way it is written to the way it is shot to the way it is acted speaks of a film that wants to be taken seriously as some sort of artistic work of great cinema. The reality, however, is that this is a film about a woman with a gun, blowing criminals away. And for The Brave One to try and be anything else--especially given the mediocre quality of the script--not only goes against the organic nature of the film, it's also total bullshit. This is putting perfume on a pig.
Foster's stoic performance lends more credibility to The Brave One than it deserves. Her being cast as an eloquent and highly literate radio show host is a poorly conceived parlor trick that is supposed to make her transformation into a cold-blooded killer all the more poignant. What it really does, however, is create a greater disconnect between Erica and the audience, because she starts out on higher moral ground, and never seems like an everyday person. This is just one example of the film attempting to cater to a more discerning arthouse audience, when this is essentially a grindhouse film re-envisioned. And the end result of this is often times an awkward film that seems to be stumbling around in the dark.
For the better part of twenty years, Hollywood has taken the sort of films that would have once been considered little more than exploitation flicks or B-movies, and put a nice shiny finish on them and sold 'em as big budget A-movies. Silence of the Lambs, also starring Jodie Foster, is the perfect example of this dynamic. Silence of the Lambs, which swept the Oscars in 1992, would have been regulated to the drive-in circuit in 1972. That film proved you could make a movie and have it evolve into something greater than it was intended to be. But within the evolution of Silence of the Lambs, director Jonathan Demme was careful to never push the film in a direction other than what it was meant to be. In other words, he never lost sight of the fact he was making a psychological horror film, he just made one that was more cinematically well-crafted than many that came before it. Neil Jordan, on the other hand, does not seem content with The Brave One simply being a vigilante film, and his attempts to make it be something else amounts to failure.
Oddly, the film's single greatest success comes from its comedic relief. Nicky Katt, co-starring as Detective Vitale, Mercer's partner, steals the film with a sick, deadpan sense of humor. And while this character may seem out of place in The Brave One, it is only because the film itself is misguided. A character like Vitale should help to lighten the somber, grim tone of a film about a woman whose finance was murdered, triggering in her the need to kill. But in The Brave One, Katt's character seems all the more out of place because of the heightened serious nature the film has adopted in an effort to be more artistically viable and less exploitative. Still, when it is all said and done, Vitale's character, and his interactions with Mercer, is one of the few things in this film that really works.
For all of its failings, shortcomings and missteps, The Brave One is not a terrible film. It is, however, based on the content of the script itself, a movie that never could have been great. And once you factor in the misguided artistic choices that are a bit like an unpaved, country road full of potholes--creating a bumpy ride that is a bit too unpleasant to endure at times--it becomes difficult to justify the trip The Brave One asks its audience to take.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]