“Details are sketchy,” blurts a news report at the start of Brooklyn’s Finest. A kid has been shot dead, and it looks like cops are to blame. The boy’s mother wails, neighbors wave their arms, and journalists lean in with cameras, as Tango (Don Cheadle) makes his way from his car to an apartment inside, he barely glances back over his shoulder, maybe not wanting to see, absolutely not wanting not to be seen.
It’s another day in Brownsville and Tango has business. The children who greet his arrival are eager and bright: “Y’all little niggers know what to do,” he smiles, as they set to unloading white bricks from the trunk. Tango makes his way inside the building, passing lanky kids who cut drugs in the kitchen and slouch on couches in the den. The walls are close, the window grated. It’s Nino Brown’s factory, the next generation, less sensational. They all know what to do.
According to Brooklyn’s Finest, this is how dealers do. Except Tango’s not a straight-up dealer, but a cop, deep undercover. As such, he’s also in anguish, not so much for the hopelessness he’s cultivating — the daily violence, the presumption of this only option — but for his own loss. His wife has left him, his days are all the same, his persona is a stereotype. When Tango meets with his lieutenant, Hobarts (Will Patton), in a dark restaurant booth, he demands a change (“I want my life back!”), but you know he’s done this before and that he can’t get out. The lieutenant knows it as well, he’s seen the same movies you have, from Deep Cover to Donnie Brasco to Infernal Affairs. Hobarts too knows what to do, insisting that Tango (whom he calls Clarence, a “real name” if ever there was one) make one more big case in order to get out from under.
You know what happens next. Tango will have to choose between the cops who treat him badly and the ex-con Caz (Wesley Snipes), who loves him. You also know happens next for the two other cops in Brooklyn’s Finest, the veteran beat cop Eddie (Richard Gere) and the Catholic Sal (Ethan Hawke). A week from retirement, Eddie first appears on a morning after a fitful night, alone and mournful, his gun in his mouth and unloaded. Sal is caught up elsewhere, his wife Angie (Lili Taylor) pregnant with twins, their fifth and sixth kids, a set of blessings that make him desperate to supplement his meager detective’s salary. He’s stealing drug money, not only from crime scenes, but also, in the film’s first minutes, from an informant (Vincent D’Onofrio), who’s mean and stupid but still doesn’t deserve what he gets. And that’s the cycle here: no one deserves what he or she gets, but they’ve all got it anyway.
This describes the central problem for Brooklyn’s Finest. Written by Michael C. Martin and directed by Antoine Fuqua, it sympathizes with its titular subjects, shows their experiences are hard and unjust, but sags under all manner of storytelling clichés. Eddie aspires to romance, a girl in need of saving. Like Travis Bickle, he focuses on a hooker, Chantel (Shannon Kane), whom he needs to save. When he retires, he tells himself, he’ll take her away from her grim, literally red-lighty apartment, and she’ll be grateful and lovely and suburban. “What do you see when you look at me?” he asks her. She offers to blow him.
Until he retires, Eddie must endure yet another professional partnership, this time with a rookie, a gung-ho and exceptionally pretty ex-Marine who means to clean up the streets. As much as Eddie tries to calm the kid’s enthusiasm, as much as he tries keep control of their hours together, they will spin out and he’ll face something like consequences. Inside his head, Eddie remains wronged and undeserving, unable to parse his feelings from his fate.
Likewise, Sal rails against the god he believes in (at confession, of course, erupting from the booth so that his priest is left looking forlorn) and channels his rage into convulsive card games with fellow cops. His best friend, Ronny (Brian F. O’Byrne), typically patient and clueless, reminds him, “You’re fucking blind to all you’ve got.” That would include a strong and supportive wife, here reduced to a burden, sick from the mold in their house and an afterthought in the plot, the blameless motivation for Sal’s bad choices. That Angie has so little to say in a plot so supposedly driven by her needs indicates what’s so shortsighted and frustrating about Brooklyn’s Finest: for all the strong performances and attention to evocative compositions, the movie, much like its flailing male protagonists, is locked into self-imposed limits.
The disappointment touches all the plots, but as Sal lurches toward his last big score and Eddie dreams of his last day, Tango’s last options become the most grating, ground down to two personalities. In one corner, the dire Agent Smith (Ellen Barkin), one-dimensionally cruel and self-invested, demanding that Tango set up the last deal, so she can achieve another promotion. In the other corner, his loyal and mostly perceptive friend from prison, Caz, a dealer who needs that one last deal to be able to escape this bad business forever, to “be a ghost and be a legend,” as Tango puts it.
Caz and Tango share the film’s most touching moments, the most earnest and most fun: they slap backs as they remember their days inside, they glare at each other over the heads of ignorant minions, and they look into each other’s eyes, as if they see deeply. But these scenes only underscore what you’re missing. Theirs is the movie that you want to see, apart from the others. It can’t end well, but it might have been more detailed and less sketchy.