Revenge in the movies has plenty of fans, not many champions. It’s not a motivation that ennobles. Still, it satisfies many audiences when “you done me wrong” has lethal consequences. Dirty Harry (1971), Death Wish (1974), Mad Max (1979), The Limey (1999) and Man on Fire (2004) offer dramatic proof (among many examples) that screen revenge has a pulse as strong as ever. Two new examples feature well known stars as crime victims in tales of urban decay, personal horror and retribution. Jodie Foster has revenge in mind in The Brave One; Kevin Bacon follows the same impulse in Death Sentence. Here’s the Smackdown: Which story — if either — lets us feel okay about deadly payback?
Audiences rendered their own verdict shortly after Death Sentence was released in late August: It quickly disappeared from the cineplex. Given the elements of this revenge-drama that’s a little surprising. Suburban executive Nick Hume (Bacon) and his son witness a stick up on the way home from a student hockey match in the city. The punks kill the son but one of them is left behind at the crime scene and eventually captured. Hume snaps and decides to dispense street justice after backing away from the weak plea agreement prosecutors offered his son’s killer. From that point on, the violence builds and Death Sentence lives up to its title. James Wan (Saw) directed Ian Jeffers’ screenplay from Brian Garfield’s novel. Garfield also wrote the book that became Death Wish.
The Defending Champion
The Brave One came out in mid-September and showcases another version of Foster’s woman of action film persona. As radio host Erica Bain the life she knew ended when she and her fiance are attacked in New York Central Park. It is especially brutal. He dies, Erica survives but is forever changed. She tells her audiences on Street Walk that a restless, sleepless stranger now inhabits her soul. Erica is afraid. She buys an unregistered handgun and eventually exacts revenge on her attackers and other predators unrelated to the attack. Homicide Detective Sean Mercer (Terrance Howard) begins connecting these events while taking a professional and personal interest in Erica’s case. Eventually their lives become interlinked in ways only he and she will ever know. Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) crisply directed the screenplay from Roderick Taylor, Bruce Taylor and Cynthia Mort.
Both films are well acted and uncomfortable. They develop a real sense of place and dread. Foster has a more dimensional character but her role and Bacon’s exude pain and loss in disturbing measure. In both movies the bad guys are believably terrifying; John Goodman could have used more face time in Death Sentence. Terrance Howard and Mary Steenburgen highlight a strong supporting cast in Brave One. This film with a gunslinger heroine opened to mild public astonishment: Jodie Foster carries the unwanted distinction of being the real life object of obsession for would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley.
Structurally, both are straightforward although The Brave One added an odd visual twist: the mix of Erica’s lovemaking with bloody images of her in the emergency room. Jarring.
What is more disturbing is the moral landscape on which both dramas play out. This is unavoidable. There is no justification for the horrors that befall Foster and Bacon’s characters; their desire to even the score is understandable — but it’s frankly hard to defend their response. Both reject legal remedies in favor of something swift and lethal. Bacon’s character confines this to his victimizers; Foster’s character does not.
Both films will soon be available on DVD. Do they offer plausible vigilante stories? Yes. And the winner?
With revenge drama you need to accept the situational morality that drives the storyline. That leaves the film making. Both tell their stories effectively, both leads carry their burden well, but there is a distinct difference in tone: Death Sentence is grittier, The Brave One has higher overall production values. Both move the drama effectively.
Jodie Foster is the difference here. Her choices are always interesting and we may never see enough of this two time Academy Award performer. She may not add to her collection of Oscars here, but the strength of Jodie Foster’s troubling performance wins this Smackdown of revenge dramas for “The Brave One.”