If you've ever harbored the fantasy of seeing NPR's Terry Gross packing heat, prowling the city streets and offing thugs with abandon, the new Jodie Foster vehicle "The Brave One" will be a dream come true. Others will be perplexed by this odd tale of a breathy radio personality turned crack vigilante. The film seems intended as a thinking person's "Death Wish," but its marriage of FM-ready platitudes and enthusiastic bloodletting proves unstable at best. The bloodletting, of course, ends up as the dominant partner, and we're left with a thoroughly frivolous hymn to urban vengeance, made all the more distasteful by its high-minded pretensions.
As the film opens, Erica Bain (Foster) seems to embody the limitless possibilities for self-exploration made possible by liberated, cosmopolitan New York. She walks the town, recording soundscapes for her potted radio essays on the elusive essence of her beloved Gotham. She sips wine at art openings. Most important of all, she's got a handsome, much younger fiance (Naveen Andrews of "Lost"), who's a doctor to boot. This pair is so snuggly, sophisticated and perfect in every way that we know the film is setting them up for a fall.
When it comes, in an orgy of mindless violence, Erica is left bereaved, afraid even to venture out of her Upper West Side apartment and onto the streets she thought belonged to her. Now the real self-exploration begins. She gets hold of an illegal gun in a Chinatown basement. Before long, she has accessed the Charles Bronson within and takes it upon herself to avenge the crimes against the weak that, mysteriously, start cropping up whenever she enters a liquor store or subway car.
It's been reported that Foster is unhappy that "The Brave One" has retained its gung-ho, prairie-justice title. If so, it's a case of swallowing a camel while straining at a gnat. If she thought she was making a film that posed serious questions about law and retribution, she should have taken another look at the storyboard. When hoodlums are blown away, many in the audience will hoot and clap with glee, just as director Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game") clearly intended them to.
If "The Brave One" does a passable job of catering to blood-lust, what occasionally pushes it into the bizarre is its attempt to portray Erica as a tormented, philosophical killer. At its height of zaniness, we watch her prepare for a murderous outing in Central Park at night, pulling on black gloves and, naturally enough, reciting Emily Dickinson to herself, while one of her old friends, whose presence is never explained, rushes to and fro in the background shouting the symbolically loaded question, "Is that you, Erica?"
The film regularly takes time out from such posturing when it turns to the cop who's begun to suspect a vigilante is on the loose. Played by Terrence Howard, suave and pensive in this role, Detective Mercer, too, has his doubts about the justice system, especially when its claptrap about rights and procedures allows creeps to roam at large. In defiance of probability, he ends up as the investigating officer at the widely dispersed scenes of Erica's bloody righteousness. He even strikes up a friendship with Erica, before ever dreaming of her involvement. The ho-hum procedural that ensues is livened up a bit by the callous and obscene quips of Mercer's partner (Nicky Katt). This banter seems to have been imported from another script, one catering to the dirtiest Harrys. Even if it doesn't fit, it's a welcome relief from the unconvincing hand-wringing that dominates elsewhere. At least these crude scenes don't pretend to be something they're not.
Foster's big-screen career took off, of course, with her role as a child prostitute rescued by a vigilante in "Taxi Driver." In "The Brave One," things come full circle, with Foster in the Travis Bickle role. A generous reading would be that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity may have bewitched Foster, who otherwise is reputed to be very selective about her roles. Although she manages some impressive displays of emotion, her performance cannot overcome the barbarous schlock at this movie's heart, not even with an assist from Emily Dickinson. (R) 122 min. S