Let’s play Jodie Foster’s game, the one where she compares her latest film, The Brave One, to Taxi Driver. Cast aside that she co-starred in both tales of New York vigilantism. OK, compare away.

One’s a shattering masterpiece tapping into a broken, confused person’s penchant for emotionally apocalyptic violence. One shamelessly and manipulatively taps into box-office success of its star kicking butt and taking names. It’s easy to pick The Brave One out of that lineup.

In Panic Room and Flightplan, Foster’s call to action had no gray area: Endanger her daughter, and the small steely lady might just have to put you through a table. Here, the retaliation of childless, peaceable National Public Radio reporter Erica Bain shouldn’t be such a basic instinct. Certainly, an actress like Foster must’ve been drawn to a thoughtful project confronting the legal, philosophical and moral consequences of vigilante justice against attackers.

Or she wanted to wave a gun around and call a man a bitch. Admittedly, Foster is too fine an actress to not find affecting moments of avenger’s remorse. But it’s futile in a film more tuned into punishment than penitence, superficially tracing Erica’s scars. Its rah-rah revenge rationale is so depressingly simple that even its title telegraphs the preferred response to Erica’s actions.

In the end, it wants us to feel soothed and emboldened, rather than rattled and uncertain — sort of like the stereotypically smoothed-out tone Erica takes on the radio. Her popular Street Walk program showcases a wistfully nostalgic view of New York. Like an urban Garrison Keillor, she roams the city and records its sounds to accompany stories she spins on the air.

Walking in Central Park one night with her German shepherd and doctor fiancé David (Naveen Andrews), she’s viciously beaten in a Central Park tunnel. Awaking from a coma, she finds David dead, her dog gone, the cops unhelpful and her rosy view of the Big Apple as shattered as her face.

Although Erica no doubt has never held a gun, let alone fired one, she becomes a crack shot almost overnight. She also develops some sort of sixth sense for tracking seedy criminals, targeting thugs, rapists, murderers and even big-shot crime lords at every turn.

Meanwhile, jaded but devoted detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard) tracks her vigilante trail, never suspecting it’s the work of a woman to whom he’s long listened on the radio. Because she’s brazen, crazy or both — writers Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort don’t bother explaining — Erica seeks Sean for interviews about the very crimes she’s committing.

Howard brings all of vintage Sidney Poitier’s poise, intensity and righteous sweat to his portrayal of this ethically conflicted cop, and Foster excels in each of their scenes together. Their sideways glances and soft tones hint at the complex movie that could have been, with a poignancy in their non-romantic connection that’s at once purposely distant and intimate.

That wounded-soul realism is more resonant and relevant to the story than Erica’s flashbacks to sweet sex with David, many melodramatic plot contrivances (as if no one would have canceled that wedding-invitation order) or over-the-top staging of spooky atmosphere from director Neil Jordan, who should know better. It looks like the Saw dummy might ride his tricycle out of that tunnel.

Plus, their bond hints at a more challenging conclusion than the movie can muster. It might be Sarah McLachlan on the soundtrack, but the finale laughably plays like part of a bad country song in reverse. By going for easy answers and responses of Erica as an executioner, The Brave One cowardly dodges tougher questions of how she’s judged and juried her own actions.