In 1984, Bernard Goetz shot four young black men at point blank range on a New York subway. While two of the men were carrying sharpened screwdrivers (apparently used to break into coin-operated videogames), the accused muggers were unarmed. Quickly heralded as the "Subway Vigilante" by a city overrun with crime, Goetz later said of the shooting, "If I had had more [bullets], I would have shot them again, and again, and again." While many regarded Goetz (who had been robbed twice before) as a hero, others condemned him—questioning whether shooting down four unarmed men really qualifies as self-defense.
Vigilantism is an interesting moral quandary, shedding light on a host of internal struggles including fear and survival, revenge and racism. It's little wonder then that the cinema has a love affair with the genre, from Taxi Driver to Coffy, and Dirty Harry to Death Wish—if the intention of art is to arouse emotion in its audience, then watching someone shoot a rapist in the nuts is a bonafide slam dunk.
Unfortunately, director Neil Jordan's The Brave One (starring Jodie Foster) isn't quite capable of tapping in to that blood lust. As a woman whose fiancé is brutally beaten and killed, Foster gamely tries to rouse the Charles Bronson lurking in her soul as she haunts New York's darkened streets killing every pervert, wife abuser, and iPod stealing black guy in sight. Following closely on her tail is good cop Terrence Howard who is torn with doing his duty, and letting this vigilantess lighten his caseload.
Ultimately, the film's downfall comes from a case of bad timing. While The Brave One gamely tries to justify its theme that killing people is okay if they're really, really bad, and the shooter feels conflicted about it—it's no longer 1984. Perhaps the denizens of 2007 aren't feeling the same sense of urban hopelessness as Goetz and the rest of NYC experienced. Perhaps we're now able to better see the moral ambiguity of villainy, rather than the one-dimensional evil of Death Wish's rapists and murderers. But then again, there's always the more obvious choice: Maybe Jodie Foster just isn't a very good Charles Bronson.