In the new Neil Jordan movie, Jodie Foster plays New York talk-radio DJ Erica Bain, who survives a vicious Central Park mugging and becomes an urban crusader devoted to cleaning up the city — with a Glock instead of a broom. Yes, The Brave One is that movie: the one with the posters of Foster posed artistically against a yellow background, her hand pressed contemplatively against her salon-styled hair, and the tag line “How Many Wrongs to Make It Right?” Yes, it’s the one where America’s once-upon-a-time sweetheart goes all Charles Bronson on us, not against creepy home invaders (à la Panic Room), but against anyone who so much as looks at her crossways. Well, not exactly, but you get the idea.

Is The Brave One any good? Certainly it’s one of those movies that expose how arbitrary such designations as “good” and “bad” can be, whether in regard to the movie itself or the behavior of its characters. As heads roll and Foster’s pretty blond face becomes splattered by increasing amounts of blood, are we really witnessing something courageous (as the title suggests) or merely an arted-up exploitation flick — Death Wish with allusions to Lawrence (“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer”) and Dickinson (“Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me”) — meant to cash in on audience feelings of fear and impotence in a violent society? Those are questions that linger long into the night after the film’s final images have faded from the screen, and which, even after seeing the film twice, I still haven’t settled my own mind about.

The premise smacks of high-concept contrivance: For starters, Erica Bain isn’t any run-of-the-mill DJ, but rather the host of a show called Street Walk, for which she prowls the avenues and back alleys of the Big Apple, recording the sounds of everyday life and then commenting, in her low, dulcet tones, on the changing, gentrifying face of New York — “a city that is disappearing before our eyes.” Nor is The Brave One content to have Erica be just another victim of random violence. She must first be the fiancée of a sensitive, longhaired, guitar-strumming male nurse named David (Naveen Andrews), whose public displays of affection and all-around too-good-to-be-trueness are the subject of much envy for Erica’s loveless girlfriends. In short, when The Brave One begins, Erica is living one of those impossibly picture-perfect movie-character lives that seem to cry out for rupture.

But by the time said rupture occurs, there are already strong indications that we’re not in Kansas — or any recognizable version of the island of Manhattan — anymore. Erica and David enter Central Park on 106th Street via the portentously named Stranger’s Gate, and by the time they come face-to-face with the pack of tattooed and bandannaed thugs who beat David to death and leave Erica in a coma, it’s as if we’ve traveled through a space-time wormhole back to the pre-Giuliani city of Erica’s nostalgic fantasies. That feeling only grows more intense as Erica, upon her recovery, returns to the streets — and eventually the airwaves — with a firearm in her microphone bag.

Taken literally, almost everything that follows in The Brave One so seriously strains credibility (even by the standards of the genre) as to enter the realm of the absurd. Taken on the level of a menacing urban fairy tale, however — something akin to Jordan’s own Mona Lisa, or what Jane Campion was aiming for with In the Cut — it exudes a strange fascination. The vigilante movie, after all, has always seemed a plainclothes variation on the superhero movie, with pimps, druggies and petty crooks subbed for more exotic, power-mad supervillains. Here, Jordan plays up those connections, giving us a New York — or a Gotham City, if you will — in which Erica Bain can scarcely set foot out of door without stumbling upon some violation of an innocent about to take place or already in progress. And when she does, the swiftness of her vengeance is quietly startling. Arguably, Death Wish’s Paul Kersey showed more inner conflict over the taking of another human life.

The Brave One isn’t the first femme-centric revenge tale, but unlike the mute protagonist of Abel Ferrara’s immortal Ms. 45, Erica Bain talks about her kills on the radio, in the third person, of course, while callers liken the vigilante (whom everyone assumes is a man) to everything from a kind of folk hero — “At least we’re getting our street cred back!” — to an exponent of the war in Iraq. But the script, credited to the father-and-son team of Roderick and Bruce A. Taylor (vigilante vets with the 1980s Michael Douglas vehicle, The Star Chamber, and episodes of The Equalizer on their shared résumé) and sitcom writer Cynthia Mort, doesn’t fully develop any of those ideas. The result is a movie that hangs in suspended animation between the grindhouse and the art house, as Erica’s brutally efficient assassinations and Dirty Harry–style one-liners trade off with ruminations on the nature of cities, violent tendencies inherent in the American character, and received notions of morality.

Still, Jordan’s ballsy and sometimes bonkers movie is more ambitious and alive — more worth writing, talking and thinking about — than anything that has tumbled off the Hollywood assembly line in a good long while. Whether by accident or design, it dares to tell a story in which the audience rarely knows where (or if) its sympathies should lie and which builds toward one of the unhappiest “happy” endings in recent memory. It gives Foster and her granite cheekbones one of their best roles — a part that capitalizes on the actress’s implacable toughness and then turns it in on itself — and a few scenes together with Terrence Howard (as the detective investigating the vigilante case) that burn with the romantic fatalism of a 1940s noir. What does it all amount to? The apparent moral of this bloody fable, as announced to Erica by a kindly neighbor woman (who has evidently been watching Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur), is that “There are plenty of ways to die. You have to figure out a way to live.” Which, in the world of The Brave One, is something easier said than done, unless you happen to have a few ounces of lead in your hip pocket.

THE BRAVE ONE | Directed by NEIL JORDAN | Written by RODERICK TAYLOR, BRUCE A. TAYLOR and CYNTHIA MORT from a story by TAYLOR and TAYLOR | Produced by JOEL SILVER and SUSAN DOWNEY | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide

Also read Judith Lewis' interview with Jodie Foster and Scott Foundas' interview with Neil Jordan.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.