Grade: C

By the standards of urban vigilante movies, “The Brave One” is certainly a class act. It’s directed by Neil Jordan with cunning intensity, and Jodie Foster pulls out all the stops as Erica Bain, the host of a radio talk show who’s driven to confront violence with violence after she’s brutally beaten and her fiancé (Naveen Andrews) killed by a gang of thugs in Central Park. It boasts a sterling supporting cast, including Terrence Howard as Sean Mercer, the dedicated homicide detective who becomes suspicious of Erica but protective of her as well, Nicky Katt as Sean’s humorously cynical partner, and Mary Steenburgen as Erica’s station boss. Technically it’s a thoroughly slick piece of work, with Philippe Rousselot’s atmospheric widescreen cinematography setting off the elegant work of production designer Kristi Zea and art director Robert Guerra, Tony Lawson’s editing keeping things suspenseful, and Dario Marianelli’s background score supporting the action without overwhelming it.

And yet the very fact that it’s so well-made actually makes the picture all the more morally dubious. It’s clear that writers Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort want to invest their story with significance; this isn’t intended to be an empty-headed “Death Wish” knockoff. And it’s not merely a matter of having the person who takes the law into her own hands be a woman—which allows the viewer to see the film as a commentary on female empowerment, even if one that’s necessarily ambiguous because it’s so extreme. It also can be interpreted as a commentary on the climate of fear prevalent in post-9/11 America, and of the lengths to which some will go (or the depths to which they’ll sink) to exorcise it. Some will choose to interpret it as an allegory of redemption through suffering and pain. And given Foster’s presence the more cinematically inclined will certainly draw comparisons to “Taxi Driver” instead of “Death Wish,” seeing Erica as a variant of Travis Bickle rather than Paul Kersey.

But I must confess that none of these arguments for the profundity of “The Brave One” are persuasive to me. Perhaps the title is meant to be ironic, but it’s unlikely most viewers will take it that way: they’re far more likely not merely to sympathize with Erica Bain but to identify with her and see her actions as, if not exactly reasonable, at least defensible. After all, the people who bite the dust at her hand are all sleazebags of one sort or another. And in the emotion of the moment one might be inclined to shrug and say, “Well, they deserved it,” and leave it at that—just as audiences in the seventies did when Charles Bronson blew away another vile piece of scum.

Of course, things aren’t quite that simple, and though the picture seems to want to say that, it never quite manages to do so. (Two gangsta types shaking down subway passengers may be lowlifes, after all, but do they really deserve to be summarily executed without benefit of legal process?) Instead it offers an ending that doesn’t just quench the revengeful thirst for blood but suggests a kind of official imprimatur for it. Unless that’s intended as a dark joke, it’s really quite repugnant. (And to make matters worse, a bit of business involving the reappearance of Erica’s dog adds a note of near-comic mawkishness to the climax that’s positively unpleasant, given the circumstances.)

So despite all the excuses one can read into “The Brave One” to explain away its vengeance-is-mine-sayeth-Erica plotline, it’s not clear that any of them wash. Casual viewers—that is, most of them—will interpret it in exactly the same way they did the recent “Death Sentence,” except with a distaff twist. It’s obviously less crass and vulgar than that picture, which was overtly tawdry junk; and Foster’s performance is far more layered and compelling than the one Kevin Bacon was able to muster in that movie: she creates a sense of vulnerability and uncertainty that suggests much more moral ambiguity than the film actually delivers. (Howard, on the other hand, is reduced to the same second-string position he played to Richard Gere in “The Hunting Party.” He’s fine, but completely unexceptional.) But in its more genteel, crafty way it’s just as manipulative, and the catharsis it seeks to effect in a viewer is no less troubling.

Others more sensitive may conclude that “The Brave One” is some sort of brooding meditation on the “Death Wish” mentality rather than simply a sleeker version of it. But it doesn’t seem so to me, and that makes it as disturbing a commentary on contemporary attitudes as the earlier film was in the seventies.