Five feet of sinew crowned with blade-sharp cheekbones, Jodie Foster is flexed, vexed and primed to strike in

The Brave One

, an exploitation flick with top-flight talent and arty pretensions. The revenge fantasy directed by Neil Jordan insists that a vigilante is a liberal who's been mugged, a message roughly 30 years past its sell-by date.

After thugs attack Erica Bain, a public-radio host, and her fiance, David, in Central Park, she lies in a coma for three weeks. And when she awakens, the city she loved is unfamiliar, the man she loved dead. Hear the rumble of the passing subway echo in Erica's empty chest. She is hollow.

In the attempt to fill the holes in her heart, Erica buys a black-market gun and pumps holes into violent men who prey on New York's helpless. Each time she fires, she re-experiences the embrace of her lost love. In becoming the men who killed David, Erica tries to resurrect him.

The Brave One resurrects a genre popular in the 1970s - the vigilante cycle of Dirty Harry, Death Wish and Taxi Driver - when America was embroiled in an unpopular war.

It's tempting to read the movie as a commentary on 9/11 and Iraq, a New Yorker who seeks revenge on those who destroyed her city. This is the intent of the film that suggests that as 9/11 has forever changed America, it has altered Erica (whose name is a shorter version of America). But that would be to accept that this lurid when-women-kill film is high-minded. It is an unexceptional genre movie graced with exceptional performances from Foster, costar Terrence Howard and Nicky Katt.

Anachronistically, the town Erica ruefully refers to as "the safest big city in the world" less resembles the shiny, borough-sized shopping mall that is New York of 2007 than the abandoned industrial city of 1977 where unemployment and random violence lurked everywhere. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot's New York Nocturne is moody and expressive - of Manhattan circa the Abe Beame administration.

Erica's murder spree frustrates the efforts of police detective Sean Mercer (Howard, heavyhearted and light-footed) who naturally assumes the vigilante is a man.

"Women kill their husbands, their children, people they love," observes Sean's partner, Det. Vitale (wryly funny Katt). Men, he notes, turn their anger outward. They kill strangers.

The primary appeal of The Brave One is in watching Foster morph from woman in love to urban soldier who hates. Foster suggests Erica's evolution from menaced to menacing by squaring shoulders, draining face of feeling and narrowing eyes to predatory slits.

It is a physical - and psychological - tour de force. But the icy heat of her performance doesn't have the transgressive rush of the Alien and Terminator films where Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton fought like men while killing them.

Maybe it's because the script by Roderick Taylor (who years ago wrote a movie about vigilante judges called The Star Chamber) pulls its punches.

Because it wants the applause both of the chatting classes and the blood crowd, The Brave One doesn't take a firm position about vigilantism. You might have disdained Death Wish, but at least that unapologetic B-movie was clear that blood justice, however viscerally satisfying, wasn't a solution to the problem of crime.

The Brave One isn't sure what it thinks. Is Erica shell-shocked? An avenging angel? Making a Disneyfied Manhattan "less boring," as one of the call-ins on her show suggests? At the film's inconclusive conclusion, the filmmakers strand Erica and Sean in the moral twilight. For Erica, revenge is a dish best served bloody. Its splatters stain her city and New York's finest.

The Brave One ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Neil Jordan, written by Roderick Taylor, Bruce Taylor and Cynthia Mort. With Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard and Nicky Katt. Distributed by Warner Bros.

Running time: 2 hours, 2 mins.

Parent's guide: R (profanity, strong violence, brief sexuality)

Playing at: Area theatersEndText

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillnews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/.