March 02, 2010

Brooklyn's Finest

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Brooklyn's Finest

DRAMA/THRILLER:

United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-03-05

Running Length:

2:10

MPAA Classification:

R (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Drugs)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes, Michael K. Williams, Lili Taylor, Brian F. O'Byrne, Will Patton, Ellen Barkin, Shannon Kane

Director:

Antoine Fuqua

Screenplay:

Michael C. Martin

Cinematography:

Patrick Murguia

Music:

Marcelo Zarvos

U.S. Distributor:

Overture Films

Subtitles:

none


With Brooklyn's Finest, director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Michael C. Martin use the ensemble approach of Crash to tell the minimally entwined stories of three Brooklyn cops, all of whom have reached a crossroads of one kind or another. Stories like this are notoriously difficult to tell and almost impossible to tell well, and various problems arise to keep Brooklyn's Finest from escaping the orbit of mediocrity. The script is hampered by a sluggish beginning and an over-reliance upon police movie clichés. Nearly every move and motive has been lifted directly from the stockroom of cop film standards. Fuqua develops the atmosphere with sufficient grit to generate a degree of narrative drive and momentum during the final 30 minutes but it takes an inordinate amount of time to get to that point and it's debatable whether the payoff is worth the two-plus hours invested to arrive at the finish line.

Eddie (Richard Gere) is a veteran cop facing retirement with the same lack of enthusiasm evident in his approach to each new day. The only thing that matters to him is getting through each shift alive so he can take a long sip from a half-full glass and spend some time being serviced by his prostitute girlfriend (Shannon Kane). It's not a fulfilling life and, when his hotshot partner calls him a coward for his unwillingness to go out on a limb, the words hit home. Eddie soon faces a choice between fading into oblivion and doing something that will really make a difference.

Tango (Don Cheadle) is under cover. His mission is to bring down drug lord Caz (Wesley Snipes), but there's a problem. He owes Caz his life and finds himself caught in the vise of conflict between duty and friendship. In the end, he recognizes he will be forced to make a decision and understands that the repercussions will be long and lasting regardless of which way he turns. Either he will betray Caz or jeopardize his career and reject the promotion he has worked long and hard for.

Sal (Ethan Hawke), a devout Catholic who attends confession and doesn't use birth control, finds himself in dire straits. With two sons and two daughters under his roof and twins on the way, he needs to find a bigger house. His wife, Angela (Lili Taylor), doesn't work and it's tough enough meeting his current bills on his paltry cop's salary, not to mention finding the money for a downpayment on his dream house. So Sal begins making occasional forays to the dark side to increase his hidden stash of dirty dollars. After all, if there is cash lying in the open at a drug bust, who's going to notice if some goes missing? As Sal's desperation grows, his actions become more bold, and he puts not only his job and reputation on the line, but his life as well.

Eddie's story is the least interesting and the most contrived. Although Gere is surprisingly good as the morally bankrupt cop searching for redemption, the path trodden by the character is predictable and obvious. It's hard to feel for Eddie when we recognize where his plot arc is taking him. Cheadle's Tango is more interesting but the script cheats at the end by using a plot device to remove the core of his moral dilemma. The climax for this character is forced; it's the kind of thing that would only happen in a movie. Finally, Sal comes across as pretty unlikeable and whiney, which makes it difficult to sympathize with his situation. As his buddy points out, he has it all - a loving wife, a happy family, and the respect of his peers. The trajectory of his character is the most tragic of the three but also the most difficult for which to develop sympathy. However, it should be noted that Ethan Hawke gives an excellent performance as a man on the psychological edge.

It's evident that Fuqua's goal is to do something meaningful with a familiar genre, but his decision to employ so many stale conventions is one of the things that dooms the effort. How many times have we seen dirty cops attend confession? Or undercover officers agonize over turning against a "friend"? Or a burnt-out veteran putting the barrel of a gun in his mouth? Too much of what transpires during the course of Brooklyn's Finest has appeared in other, better cop movies. Often, this seems like a "greatest hits" compilation, and it doesn't help that the running length is split into three, limiting the amount of time allotted to character development for each of the three principals.

At least the acting is uniformly solid. Fine performances abound, and not just from the leads. Wesley Snipes, who hasn't been in much of note in nearly a decade, settles into this role as if he was born for it. Vincent D'Onofrio is terrific in the one-scene cameo that gets the movie off to a rousing start. And Ellen Barkin is unforgettable as the foul-mouthed, tough-as-nails FBI agent who makes life hell for Tango. It's in large part because of the acting that the derivative nature of Brooklyn's Finest is sometimes obscured.

Ultimately, the film isn't uninteresting. It takes some effort to stick with it. As effective as Fuqua is at generating tension during the final act (he frequently uses cross-cutting for this purpose), he has trouble sustaining interest in the earlier mandatory "getting to know them" segments. Brooklyn's Finest has a more compelling second half, but is the payoff worth the investment? That's questionable, and the answer may lie in how enamored one is with the genre. Fuqua's portrait of Brooklyn is brutal and gritty; if only his characters were as vivid.

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