[5 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The burnt-out veteran who’s seen too much and tries to cover it up with quite disdain…and alcohol. The undercover detective who’s gotten lost in the far too deep disguise of drug dealing dominion…and wants out…maybe. The unhinged hero cop who’s in desperate need of a new home to house his growing family…and the cash to afford the down payment. These are the archetypes director Antoine Fuqua brings to his latest attempted crime epic Brooklyn’s Finest. The Training Day guide, who’s made a name for himself in exploring both the good and bad side of law and order, is back in familiar territory with this overlong look at New York’s thin blue line. While there are moments that sizzle with significant drama, the rest of the time this tired narrative drags like a strung out junkie in a dark alleyway.
We are first introduced to Italian hothead Sal (Ethan Hawke) as he murders a mark for his cash. With a current home loaded with mold and a very pregnant wife (Lili Taylor) who’s allergic to same, he needs as much money as possible to get out of his dangerous domicile. That he’s willing to risk years on the force to kill and collect from the local criminals is just one of his many flaws. Also suffering under the badge is about-to-retire patrolman Eddie (Richard Gere). He’s an old hat non-hero who’s seen it all - and even more importantly - ignored getting involved in same. He spends his days counting down to retirement, his nights in the bed of a friendly prostitute (Shannon Kane). Finally, there’s Tango (Don Cheadle), a deep undercover cop who’s working the project’s drug detail. When the FBI targets Caz (Wesley Snipes), a former felon fresh out of prison, the boundaries between law and illegality are tested on all sides.
If we hadn’t seen it all before, if every police procedural and big city drama over the last four decades hadn’t dealt with such blurred lines between serve and protect good and crass criminal evil, Brooklyn’s Finest may have worked. It might have seemed fresh and newly forged. Fuqua did something similar with his previous rogue policeman piece but without a star as stunning as Denzel Washington, or a writer as wise as David Ayer, this NYPD take on the same stuff just can’t compete. TV scribe Michael C. Martin makes many mistakes here, including laugh-out-loud legitimizing for Hawke’s scoundrel activities. Instead of building a believable rationale for why he steals and murders, we get a blood-splatter episode of House Hunters. Every time he gets on the phone and finagles with the cranky female realtor on the other side, you want to chuckle to yourself.
Similarly, Richard Gere’s Eddie is so depressing, so gun barrel-in-the-mouth morose, that you wonder how he’s avoided a substantial psyche evaluation. Besides, he literally does nothing when it comes to enforcing the law. A guy on a street corner beats his woman in broad daylight? Eddie yells “jurisdictional precedent” and turns away. Store owners scream and yell about shoplifting and threats? Our hapless hero calms nerves, but then makes massive rookie-like mistakes in letting things simmer until they spill over (with deadly results). Perhaps the most ridiculous facet of his flawed personality is the ‘slut as savior’ angle played out between Eddie and call girl gal pal Chantal. He is so in love with her sexual vitality that he mistakes it for affection. He is destined to get burned and burned badly by this bimbo.
Only Cheadle’s narrative provides any interest, but it’s all Scarface-lite. In fact, one is instantly reminded of John Woo’s superior Hard-Boiled and how the Hong Kong master found a way to reinvent the whole “in too deep” dynamic. With Will Patton and Ellen Barkin playing good op/bad op with their subordinate’s soul, and Cheadle doing everything to avoid cliché, it’s the drug money storyline that’s indeed Brooklyn’s ‘finest’. The arrival of Wesley Snipes helps as well, though he’s given little to do except trade on his New Jack City slickness and spit out a few Tony Montana-esque bon mots. Martin wants to make his time in the ghetto seem as real as possible. Yet the Borough we see here seems to be suffering from the same senseless rap-speak that was popular back in the late ‘90s.
Indeed, a lot of Brooklyn’s Finest feels old and overwrought. We’ve been here before, seen cops catering to their own inner demons in dozens of previous pictures. As a rule of thumb, if you’re going to revisit formula, you better have a spectacular story to tell or a great set of compelling characters to occupy it. Fuqua has neither - just his own inherent electricity behind the lens and a deft hand at blowing bullet holes through people. There is a lot of violence in Brooklyn’s Finest, but it doesn’t have the presumed impact the film anticipates. Like everything else here, it feels forced and way too familiar, the novelty of such nastiness having worn off long ago. Even the ending, which tries to surprise us by tying all three stories together in one sickening display of human misery after another, fails to engage or entertain.
By the end of this trial by unfriendly fire, we are worn out and weak willed. We appreciate that Fuqua is trying to reconnect with the material that made him - at least temporarily - a known Hollywood name, but we can’t help but feel there were different, more definitive situations to explore. We enjoy Cheadle going full blown bad-ass, though it would be nice if he had something solid to do with it, but at least he doesn’t embarrass himself like Hawke and Gere do. Both are brilliantly miscast, about as realistic in their solemnity/insanity as two generic Caucasians can be. Of the two, the artist formerly known as an American gigolo falls the furthest. Given little to do except wince and moan, he elicits little sympathy. In fact, the only actor who appears to need our support is Snipes. His performance practically begs the audience to reconsider their current opinion of him. As for everything else, Brooklyn’s Finest is a test we took decades ago - and this time, the results earn a failing grade.