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A soulless homage to 'Taxi Driver'

The Baltimore Sun

Jodie Foster was attracted to The Brave One partly because it resembled Taxi Driver, the Martin Scorsese masterpiece in which, at age 13, she played a prostitute. She told Newsweek, "When I first read the script, honestly, it didn't remind me enough of Taxi Driver. That was one of my issues with it."

Right there, Foster indicates what's gone wrong with her new movie. It's an attempt to re-create artificially the power of a movie that was intensely organic. Critics have interpreted Taxi Driver as a response to the violence of the Vietnam War era and a reaction to a New York City that seemed on the eve of self-destruction. But it was mostly about a cabby so pulled into decay and chaos that he could no longer hold together mind, body and soul. It had the authority of first-hand experience and what famed author Henry James would call "felt life." Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader and star Robert De Niro drew on their own red-hot angst to fill out their portrait of a cabby-turned-urban warrior.

When Schrader asked Scorsese, "This privilege we have of creating unreal images, things that we make up, that never happened -- does this privilege, this freedom, allow you to live vicariously? To what extent does it relieve sexual tension?" Scorsese answered, "None" -- and a minute later added, "I was crazier when I finished Taxi Driver than when I began."

I doubt Irish director Neil Jordan became any crazier after making The Brave One. In international hits (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game) and lesser-known movies that some of us like better (The Miracle, The End of the Affair), Jordan has shown a mastery of movie arts and crafts equal to Scorsese's. But here he fails to do what Scorsese did: transform potential trash into art. He never brings it his own soul.

In Jordan's The Brave One, a New York public-radio star (Foster) turns vigilante after experiencing a vicious assault and the beating death of her fiance. It shares a lot with Taxi Driver, including a horrific portrait of lower-depths New York, which made more sense in 1976, and a hero who mingles amorous loss or longing with violence while trying to lash out at the horrors surrounding fragile city-dwellers.

The biggest difference is, with Taxi Driver, Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro developed their drama both obsessively and meticulously, from the inside out, so that we understood every inch of the taxi driver's slide into mania. In The Brave One, Jordan and a trio of screenwriters as well as his star, Foster, work from the outside in -- and, for that matter, never get too far in.

Jordan and company have talked a good game to the media about exploring a woman pushed to extremes after a traumatic attack and a New York still recovering from Sept. 11, as well as using the revenge-flick genre to open up (in Jordan's words) "American points of view toward violence." But the finished movie provokes audiences to applause and laughter when Foster sends bad guys to the morgue.

There's no comparison between The Brave One and the depth and authenticity of Taxi Driver. As Schrader divulged in the commentary track of the old Criterion Collection laser disc, he wrote the script after a period of isolation and despair when he found himself living in his car like a cabby. Scorsese identified with the character's stifled passions and responded with his native New Yorker's experience of the city as a smoking, neon-bathed nightscape that pricks nerves and smears perceptions.

From the moment De Niro's Travis Bickle saunters into the cab office and asks for a job, so out of it that he doesn't understand the manager's vocabulary yet so resolute that he gets what he wants, he's a maddening mixed figure: both repulsive and attractive. He befuddles people who should see through him. His magnetism and drive enable him to swing a date with a pretty political-campaign worker played by Cybill Shepherd and pose as the redeemer for the pubescent streetwalker played by Foster. But his loathing for the corruption and debasement of the contemporary city -- and his self-loathing for being drawn to it -- eat him up inside. You watch with fascinated horror as he readies himself for combat.

The Brave One's Jordan has said, "The death penalty in the U.S. is a kind of legalized revenge, isn't it? You've even kind of admitted to that fact, too, the way that families of the victim can attend the execution." But that's awfully glib compared with Schrader's statement that Americans (unlike Europeans) project their rage and frustration outward. Taxi Driver really is about the way America's deranged fashion a warped parody of our rugged individualism and our sappy communitarianism. And it makes every step of that process lucid and terrifying. Bickle wants to be a "person like other people" -- and can't. So in his mind he erects an alternate Gotham, where he can appear to be a "person like other people" while preparing to be their savior. He's a porno-house habitue who's also a spokesman for wholesomeness: When he counsels Foster's prostitute, he promotes family values.

Schrader says the movie began as an exploration of loneliness and ended up being about self-imposed loneliness; his script transcended therapy to chart a voyage of discovery that Scorsese and De Niro went on, too. Scorsese brought along moody, character-enhancing techniques and uncanny metropolitan instincts: The master-stroke of casting Albert Brooks as Shepherd's fellow campaign worker helps crystallize the glib, at-ease sort of urban life that Bickle hates. And De Niro sunk scarily deep into his character without sacrificing creativity -- it was the actor who came up with Bickle's paranoid riff, "You talkin' to me?"

In the intervening decades, Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro have often struggled for inspiration and settled for observation and artisanship. In Taxi Driver, the journalistic and poetic aspirations of all three key creators merged seamlessly, in a vision of hell as reflected in a rearview mirror. In The Brave One, all Jordan and Foster end up getting from that movie is psycho hard-guy -- make that psycho hard-gal -- mannerisms.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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