- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

Never mind Hollywood’s slate of left-leaning polemics this fall. The industry can always find room for a vigilante picture. This month, it graciously gave us two.

“The Brave One,” opening tomorrow, casts Jodie Foster as a radio-host-turned-vigilante after she and her fiance are set upon by savage punks.

In “Death Sentence,” already in theaters, Kevin Bacon is a mild-mannered Joe who takes action after a thug-in-training murders his son.

Tom Abrams, associate professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, says as much as Hollywood may lean left, it’s smart enough to recognize universal truths.

“At the end of the day, the average person believes in family,” Mr. Abrams says. So everybody can relate to a story where a regular guy or gal goes berserk when said family is torn apart.

Mr. Abrams, who teaches in the school’s Division of Writing for Screen & Television, suggests the impulse to take matters into one’s own hands when lawful authority fails is ingrained in this country’s DNA.

“America was founded by people who rebelled against authority,” he says. “It created a taste for these kinds of stories.”

It’s not the same everywhere, he adds.

In the course of his frequent script development work in Europe, Mr. Abrams regularly encounters film projects in which the protagonist takes the law into his or her own hands or must fight a corrupt government.

Those stories don’t get greenlighted, he says. The assumption is that European audiences — more dependent on and trusting of their governments — just won’t buy such premises.

Stateside audiences certainly aren’t buying “Death Sentence” (it earned $2.8 million in two weeks) but that could be blamed on poor promotion as much as content.

Mr. Bacon delivers another credible turn as the shattered father, but “Saw” director James Wan’s “Sentence” is more a glorified B-movie than an emotional treatise on violence.

“The Brave One,” in comparison, clearly wants to make a bigger statement.

Miss Foster’s transformation from innocent to vigilante is far more delicate than Mr. Bacon’s, and the film strives for greater emotional truths.

Yet for all its polish, including a stellar performance by Miss Foster, it provides a surprising amount of sympathy for the main character’s handiwork.

Roderick Taylor, who co-wrote “The Brave One,” says he wanted to create a dialogue that would last long after the lights went up.

“It’s great to stir up the passions of the audience,” Mr. Taylor says. “There’s something for everybody. Some people like to see the bad guys get shot. Other people examine the human spirit and how it survives under stress.”

“The Brave One” might spark a few Op-Ed pieces, but the timing of its release sure seems puzzling. Especially since the script has been caroming around Hollywood since 2001.

An appetite for tales of extralegal justice seemed to make perfect sense when “Dirty Harry” came out, guns blazing, in 1971. Popular fear of violent crime and judicial sensitivity to the rights of criminals were both at their zenith.

Patricia King Hanson, executive editor and project director of the AFI Catalog of Feature Films, can only scratch her head over the timing of these new vigilante flicks.

“Crime statistics are not what they were in the ‘70s,” Miss Hanson says. “People aren’t as frightened about those things as they are about pollution or terrorism. It’s not answering a societal question that’s on everyone’s minds.”

She recalls the reaction from film critics when Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan, among other misdeeds, repeatedly kicked a wounded man to get information out of him.

Renowned critic Pauline Kael may have spoken for many of her peers when she called the film “fascist.”

But vigilante features may not need a cultural crisis upon which to pin a release date. After all, who hasn’t walked home alone at night and wondered what might happen should the shadows near our front porch turn out to conceal a vicious stranger?

Hollywood routinely plays on our fears, be it through a serial killer a la “Halloween’s” Michael Myers or a toxic conspiracy in films such as “Erin Brockovich.”

We’re collectively helpless against such enemies, so it’s reassuring to see someone just like us take a stand. Even if his or her soul is compromised, or lost entirely, in the process.

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