Consider this “one for them.” John Singleton has said more than once that, to get along as an artist in a crass business, he makes one film for them and one for himself. Four Brothers falls fast and hard on the Shaft side of that formulation—noisy, nutty, and proudly excessive.
The familiar mayhem begins with a standard rock-standard intro, in this case, Grace Slick wailing, “Don’t you want somebody to love?” This as the camera closes on a Detroit street and then inside a shabby convenience store, the site of impetus for the four brothers business. That is, the death of their beloved adoptive mother, the sweetest, most community-conscious, and selfless maternal figure you might imagine. Irish, big-hearted Evelyn (Fionnula Flanagan) spends an extra few minutes in the store to make sure a sweet-faced child not only returns a chocolate bar he’s stolen, but also apologizes to the clerk and promises he’ll never do it again. That additional time is just enough to place her at an imminent crime scene, when a couple of young lugs in ski masks rob the store and blow her away.
The first time, you only hear the shooting, while observing a couple of ooky white-light blasts from outside the store. The second time, you see the violence from a different sort of distance, via the store’s surveillance video (which has, for some reason, been left with the father of the dead clerk and not the police). Watching with you are Evelyn’s sons, in town for the funeral and, inevitably, a little payback. Helpfully, the local know-it-all cops—Green (super smooth Terrence Howard) and Fowler (unconvincing Josh Charles)—anticipate trouble, so as they sit in their unmarked obvious car and watch the guests arriving for the wake, they list the “four delinquents”’ names and identifying traits.
Thus, you meet “number one heavyweight champion fuck-up of the family” Bobby (Mark Wahlberg); “pretty boy, ex-hustler, and soldier” Angel (Tyrese Gibson); family man Jeremiah (André Benjamin), married to the wholly patient and underused Camille (Taraji P. Henson); and “first class fuck-up, third class rocker” Jack (Garrett Hedlund). How, wonders Fowler, all smug and snarfy in his detective coat, could a “goddamn saint raise four fuck-ups?” You get the drift.
But just as you’re thinking that the boys are only trouble (and Bobby’s perfectly worn leather jacket, looking stylish, also conveys his toughness), you also see that their mom truly loved them, this by way of equally helpful and doubly preposterous sequence at the boys’ sad but courageously familial Thanksgiving dinner table. Evelyn appears to each son, save one, encouraging him to keep his elbows off the table or chew with his mouth closed. Looking embarrassed and grateful, the boys realize they owe mom everything. (It appears she was a saint, at least in the miraculous resurrection department.)
In between the guilt-tripping and the domestic melodrama (reportedly inspired by the John Wayne/John Ford Western, 3 Godfathers), the boys argue over priorities. While Bobby insists that mom’s murder is suspicious, that she was not an accidental victim of “friggin’ gangs,” Jeremiah is concerned with getting his young daughter to after-school activities, and Jack’s looking for quiet time to strum his guitar. Angel, meanwhile, has an old girlfriend in town, the egregiously “hot-blooded” Sofi (Sofía Vergara), who provides distraction for him and not a little annoyance for his brothers. It’s not long before they all get bored enough that they focus, figuring out that Evelyn was indeed a target. And then the movie can begin in earnest.
Because they see the cops as useless (according to Bobby, who recalls he once had a thriving illicit business in town—and maintains a colorful idiom—they “couldn’t find tits in a strip bar”), the brothers decide to do their own detecting. Specifically, they start tracking down suspects who know about suspects. Their mission—justice? revenge? havoc?—so overwhelms them that they see no problem with dropping one interviewee out a window (“He ain’t dead,” declares Bobby, “He’s just fucked up,” this as the camera offers a throbbing closeup of a bone jutting out of his leg) or shooting another two full of holes, without getting the information they supposedly sought. Apparently, such behavior is fine for this town, because when Green stops by, knowing they’re involved, he appreciates their sustained grief over mom, and lets the gonzo assaults pass as “self-defense.”
Four Brothers practices the sort of chilling logic whereby the good guys are plainly outrageous, but compared to the Head Villain, they look rational. Here, Head Villain is Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the most depraved gangster this side of Jeffrey Wright’s psycho killer in Shaft; instead of cutting up his own chest, Victor makes his minions eat off the floor. Ah, the insidiousness. Not only does Victor wear a very furry, PETA-defiant designer parka, but he treats all his workers and associates badly. When a councilman (Barry Shabaka Henley) stops by Victor’s home to report some bad news, the host comes up with an utterly devastating penalty: he makes Douglas sit at the kids’ table in the corner.
The older man’s face falls. Again, the drift is clear. And for his meanness, Victor will meet a terrible and well-deserved end. Along the way, the brothers and their increasingly pathetic adversaries indulge in all manner of licensed or officially overlooked violence, because making things right for your mama is all that matters. The shoot-outs are gargantuan, the car chases demented, and the snow storms actually rather arty. One car chase is especially ingenious, in its way, as it’s not about the spectacular driving, but about blindness amid swirling snow. The brothers drive on, unable to stop. It’s a useful metaphor for Four Brothers. It’s not about vision. It’s about submission.