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Search and destroy Jodie Foster is superb as a radio host whose life is shattered when her fiance is murdered in Central Park.

Jodie Foster has been just about everywhere talking up "The Brave One." She told David Letterman that she's prouder of this avenging vigilante movie than anything else she's done in a long time.

She told Jon Stewart the next night that it pleased her to play a woman who externalized her rage and misery rather than internalized it, drank, went crazy and/or committed suicide, as is more common.

Any minute now, you can probably expect her to hype it on the Animal Planet network. After all, a stolen dog is a cardinal plot point, as anyone knows who has seen the commercials that have saturated the airwaves for the past month.

Nevermind that Neil Jordan's "The Brave One" isn't a third as good a movie as, say, James Mangold's Western remake "3:10 to Yuma." It is going to make a fortune at the box office -- twice "Yuma's" take at least is my guess.

I doubt anyone believes everything Foster is saying in her effort to sell her movie. Nor do I think anyone minds her hyperbolic salesmanship either.

That's because there is no living film actress who has the relationship to us that she has. What is difficult to forget is that fame has truly violated her in a decidedly nonmetaphorical way. A crazy stalking kid actually shot the president of the United States to impress her. Everyone knows that John Hinckley Jr.'s gun, on another day, might just as easily have been turned in anger on her, leaving her as dead as tragic, stalked young actresses Rebecca Schaeffer and Dominique Dunne.

There is a perfect rightness to any plot at all that has Jodie Foster as an avenging angel. People don't just want her to defend herself and pay the world back, they NEED her to.

That she is also as intelligent and credible a film actress as any we have is almost beside the point in this movie. I have been reviewing her since her first starring role opposite a Disney lion in a movie called "Napoleon and Samantha." I have yet to have the slightest doubt about any single word she has ever spoken on a movie screen. There is no other living actress about whom I can say that.

She is spectacularly good in "The Brave One" (the awful title, by the way, recapitulates the title of a '50s Western for which blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo won an Oscar under a pseudonym).

The movie, though, doesn't begin to deserve her. Foster can talk all she wants about this movie's thematic kinship to Martin Scorsese's classic "Taxi Driver" (in which, remember, she played a pubescent prostitute). You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind to miss the fact that "The Brave One" is just Jodie Foster doing a fancy, quasi-literary version of Charles Bronson in "Death Wish" for producer Joel Silver.

She is, in other words, a woman who is assaulted with her beloved fiance and dog in Central Park. Her fiance dies. Her dog is stolen. Her life -- her very sense of self -- is shattered.

Her name in the film is Erica Bain.

She is, by day, a sort of florid, pretentious talk radio impressionist painting verbal cityscapes for sensitive listeners. At night, she becomes a prowler of streets and subways in search of miscreants to blow away with her black market .9 millimeter pistol.

What "liberates" her dark side is a late-night deli shooting she accidentally witnesses. A crazed, homicidal husband walks in, berates his wife behind the counter, screams, and then shoots her dead. Our heroine Erica, hiding among the soda cans with her gun, blows him away out of terror for her life.

She becomes, thereafter, someone else, as she tells us in the pseudo-profound voiceovers. She finds that "there's a stranger inside you . . . a sleepless, restless stranger."

Bernie Goetz was a piker by comparison. Erica is a vengeful, insomniac vigilante on the prowl for scum to be swept off the streets to their reward of eternal damnation.

Her two lives combine as she discusses, on the radio, the case of the front page vigilante who, it just so happens (and only she knows) is her.

The cop on her case who suspects is played by Terrence Howard. They bond in their personal losses, especially after he begins to suspect what's going on.

Eliminate her and the references to Emily Dickinson and D.H. Lawrence and you've got a cable TV movie for insomniacs who might be just as happy watching, say, Raquel Welch in the revenge Western "Hannie Caulder" or Sondra Locke in Clint Eastwood's "Sudden Impact."

Instead, you've got one of the great film actresses of her time giving it everything she's got for reasons of her own.

Maybe they're the reasons she's given us. Maybe, they're something else (maybe, they're just her incredible shrewdness about what people want from her on-screen. Listen to her talk and you instantly know that her raw intelligence dwarfs that of most people who work with her -- or, for that matter, interview her).

Whatever her reasons, here is another brilliantly painted portrait -- credible and moving, even this close to the cinematic gutter.

You've also got a director who knows a thing or two about literary archetype -- Neil Jordan who, among many other movies, gave us "The Crying Game."

"The Brave One" is a shudderingly clever semi-upscale multiplex product, which is treated by its lead performer, as if it's profound film art.

It's nothing even remotely of a sort.

But that doesn't, for a minute, diminish what Jodie Foster does in it.



>Movie Review

The Brave One

Review: 2 1/2 stars (out of four)
Jodie Foster as an urban vigilante avenging her fiance's murder on New York's streets and subways. With Terrence Howard and Naveen Andrews, directed by Neil Jordan. Rated R, opening tomorrow in area theaters.

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