"Inside you there's a stranger," says Jodie Foster in The Brave One, referring to the killing machine a brutal crime has unleashed within her. The same goes for Neil Jordan's deplorable urban-vengeance melodrama -- the stranger inside the picture's for-your-consideration varnish is the vicious grindhouse fare that disappeared when 42nd Street fleapits were closed down, supposedly one of the reasons NYC, according to one of the radio-host heroine's callers, has no more "street cred." Actually, the ratty, revenge-fueled thrillers that rode the Death Wish wave well into the 1980s have a jagged rawness that is the opposite of The Brave One's calculated, chicken-shit respectability: The honest roughness of unapologetic nasties like The Exterminator or Vigilante, to say nothing of gutty masterpieces like Ms. 45, shames the hysteria of Jordan's faux feminist fable. When the film braids the scissoring of Foster's underwear as she lies battered on an emergency-room table with a recollection of the same panties being tastefully removed by her now-murdered boyfriend (Naveen Andrews), it is an insane moment, but it's at least a kind of madness the maker of The Crying Game and The Butcher Boy might have pursued further. Unfortunately, this is Jordan in his first full-on hack project, content to visualize Foster's traumas with a tilted camera and a greenish filter or settle for such lines as "You're the good guys. How come it doesn't feel like that?" She hits the streets with a contraband revolver and fashions herself into a thug-magnet; her killings capture the attention of New Yorkers, a divorce-fatigued investigator (Terrence Howard) in particular.
The connection to Scorsese's Taxi Driver has been abundantly noted, and Foster is even given a bit of a baton-passing moment when she tends to a drugged teen hooker (Zoe Kravitz) abducted by a leech-faced perv. The Brave One is less a confused text, however, than a repulsive one. "Am I finding them, or are they finding me," the heroine ponders in her narration, but the film is too chicken-shit to risk complications by mixing her hair-trigger vigilantism with troubling doubt -- when she blows away a pair of black punks in the subway or buries a crowbar into the skull of the odious kingpin Howard cannot legally touch, there's none of the complex irony of Travis Bickle's "heroic" bloodletting to distract from the audience's "boo-yahs!" Instead, the character's carnage is approved by being perpetrated against the scuzziest members of Central Casting; the hoods Foster offs are carefully diverse racially, but the movie's ass-covering nadir comes when, after gassily reading D.H. Lawrence over the airwaves, she takes a string of callers in a scene that glances at every possible way her turmoil could be interpreted (Iraq War? Check. Media exploitation? Check. Eros-Thanatos disorder? Check) while reinforcing her superiority to them all. The Brave One is an exploitative gorge-riser with a spuriously therapeutic veneer, blessing the viewer's thirst for payback via okey-dokeys given by not one but two black sidekicks, the nebulously African neighbor who talks of the horrors "back home," and Howard, who contributes to the reprehensible little bow tied at the finale. Gone is the openly decivilizing bloodlust of I Spit on Your Grave: Here's a film that trots out Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" just to cover for "Who's the bitch now!?"
3:10 to Yuma is James Mangold's remake of the 1957 Delmer Daves Western that had Glenn Ford's courtly outlaw slyly pecking at decent farmer Van Heflin while they waited in a bridal suite for the eponymous train. The original kicked off with a brisk stagecoach robbery showcasing Ford's ease with crime and private moral code; the new holdup has been upgraded with showers of bullets and explosions, but Mangold's film from the start has at its center the war-maimed, emasculated rancher (Christian Bale) who serves as the latest incarnation of the director's preferred mulish-outsider protagonist (Heavy, Copland, Walk the Line). Saddled with a wooden leg and the disdain of a son (Logan Lerman) who measures him against the heroes of dime-store novels, Bale joins the posse that will take the fearsome criminal (Russell Crowe) to prison; Russell is a gentlemanly lawbreaker, however, an amateur sketch-artist and poet who beguiles Bale's wife (Gretchen Mol) one second and slashes a man's throat with a fork the next. The dance between Bale's sedentary rectitude and Crowe's wandering recklessness in the formative gaze of a youngster should be more stirring than it is -- a prosaic filmmaker, Mangold scarcely pushes the material to the stimulating extremes the way less tidy artists tend to, and his cautious approach to oater tropes gives "solid craftsmanship" a dreary name. Mangold's forte is still his attention to performance: Bale's starved, bitter eyes are matched up with Russell's muscular irony, Ben Foster gives a queenly flash to his dusty Confederate uniform in a homage to The Missouri Breaks, Peter Fonda as a gnarled bounty hunter is superbly unrecognizable (Luke Wilson is, unfortunately, all too recognizable). The final shootout is more realistic than the original ending, I guess, but I'd gladly trade all of its "realism" for the lyrically craning movement Daves's camera used to usher in the rain and reconcile the characters' dueling tensions.
Terrence Howard is wasted again as a Faithful Negro in The Hunting Party, a film that, like The Brave One, adorns its bankrupt inanity in the robes of Importance. It opens as would-be satire in the glib style director Richard Shepard brought to The Matador, turns into ersatz Hemingway, then settles into an early entry for this year's Blood Diamond competition. Richard Gere is a hot-shit reporter whose on-air breakdown while covering Sarajevo atrocities demotes him to freelance purgatory; flash-forward a few years, and his old cameraman (Howard) is now a network favorite, making a stop in Bosnia and bumping into Gere, who's now on a personal mission to catch one of the masterminds (Ljubomir Kerekes) behind the Balkan genocides. The basis is Scott Anderson's 2000 Esquire article, Shepard steers it towards Stone's Salvador but can't even reach Lord of War -- groaners like "Don't believe all you learn in journalism school," cuteness sold as critique ("Enjoy Sarajevo" imprinted onto a wall like the Coke logo), etc. Offered as someone's idea of Balkan gravitas, Diane Kruger comes off like Natasha from The Bullwinkle Show, a fittingly cartoonish addition to the kind of counterfeit Hollywood provocation that exploits real-life tragedy so that movie stars can fantasize about corralling the evil "motherfucker" the U.N. could never find.
Reviewed September 22, 2007.