Jodie Foster has perfected a gesture over the years that's as identifiably her own as the caressing, melancholy precision of her alto voice: She cocks her head slightly downward and sideways while she fixes her steel-blue gaze on the object of her study. Her eyebrows knit slightly. Often, the camera pushes in close, drawn to her intelligent face, which is becoming even lovelier and more at peace with each accumulating decade. Hers is a look that, depending on the script, conveys ''You're hurting me,'' ''You're about to make me do something I didn't think I had in me,'' or ''There's no turning back now, so I'm going to defend myself by any means possible.'' As The Brave One's Erica Bain, a New York City talk-radio essayist whose sense of home, safety, and self are undone after a violent mugging in which she's attacked and her fiancé is beaten to death, Foster adds another layer of meaning to that tilt of chin: ''I'm pushing beyond fear and I'm going to shoot you.''
Everything about Foster's ocular intensity is riveting, but little in this hushed vigilante drama makes sense. Instead, there's a progressively alienating deficiency of logic in the provocative enterprise, a diminishing return as the subsequent kills pile up. The crazy-making quotient begins with the rosy depiction of the city Erica starts out loving so much, and ends with a climax of ludicrous happenstance involving the avenging woman and Terrence Howard as a mournfully divorced NYPD detective who becomes involved in the case and bewitched by Erica's gaze. The movie is a maddening mumble of a tale akin to a garbled NYC subway loudspeaker announcement that seems to be advising citizens to rub each other out rather than report suspicious activity.
In the beginning, see, Erica is a lucky public-radio employee very much in love with her doctor fiancé, David (Naveen Andrews). To create her poetic pieces about New York the essays are a cross between Garrison Keillor monologues and Ben Katchor's graphic novels about the pleasures of urban decay she strolls around dangling a microphone to collect ambient sound. And to unwind with David after work, the two walk their dog in one of New York's great parks. Thousands of other dog walkers do the same. Only not in Erica's world, apparently. What New York is this, and in what decade, where a man and a woman can find a park devoid of all other New Yorkers except crazed evildoers in the kind of scary-looking underpass that occupies a timid tourist's nightmares? Besides, what kind of New Yorker walks into park tunnels at night?
When the couple is ambushed, we seem to be inhabiting the 1970s of Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and Taxi Driver. But if so, why do the perps document their sick acts with digital technology suitable for Internet broadcast? Later, Erica will buy an illegal handgun, ride a subway occupied by a new set of menacing creeps, whip out her weapon, blow them away, and exit unseen. What manner of unrecognizable woman is this? I was born and live in Erica's city, and have walked her streets since the Son of Sam was on the loose. Yet I can't feel her fear, not really, either as cinematically heightened reality or as feminine state of psychological siege. (Aside from her fiancé, the only soul this loner knows would appear to be an African neighbor who murmurs sisterly wisdom.)
Confounded, I can only gaze back at Foster's clear eyes, interested but unconvinced and turn for comic relief to Nicky Katt's invigorating supporting bit as the city's only reliably contemporary, unanguished cop. The Brave One is directed with an Irish fondness for gloom by Neil Jordan, whose feel for alienated outsiders glints through every one of his films, from The Crying Game to Breakfast on Pluto, but whose nonresident sense of Big Apple energy can't be trusted. It's produced by Joel Silver, whose love of mow-the-bad-guys-down combustion built an action empire, but whose interest in verisimilitude is, let's say, limited. (The screenplay is by father and son Roderick and Bruce A. Taylor, and Cynthia Mort. Surely it didn't take a team to come up with a fortune-cookie pronouncement like ''Anyone can cross the line anyone can be a killer.'')
As a public-radio liberal mugged by reality, Erica Bain may be meant to embody the new conservatism. As a woman with a gun who trades her humanity for the cold, heartless anesthetic of revenge, she may be meant to be a warning against feminism. Just because I don't buy either line doesn't mean I don't appreciate the appeal of that compelling Foster head swivel. Not that I'd defend it to the death. C+