I’ve come up hard, but now I’m cool.
I didn’t make it, baby, playin’ by the rules.
I’ve come up hard, baby, but now I’m fine.
I’m shakin’ trouble, sure movin’ down the line.
— Marvin Gaye, “Trouble Man”
You gonna shoot up the whole town ’cause y’all mad? Come on, man!
— Jeremiah (André Benjamin), Four Brothers
“I grew up in sunny southern California, and I’m not used to snow,” says John Singleton by way of introducing Four Brothers. “I wanted to do a movie with snow in it, so here it is.” As the screen shows snow through a windshield, Grace Slick sings “Somebody to Love,” the focus racking to show a pair of fuzzy dice. It’s “kind of like four dots,” says detail-lover Singleton, “And it’s setting up the four guys.” It’s also marking the interior of their mother’s car, and as Evelyn (Fionnula Flanagan) emerges, the camera cuts to an exterior shot, hanging low so a dark Detroit storefront looms over her. And yes, within minutes, she’s dead.
While the DVD includes the usual sort s of extras (nine deleted scenes, featurettes on basic subjects like “The Look of Four Brothers,” “Crafting the Four Brothers,” “Behind the Brotherhood,” and the making-of-a-scene “Mercer House Shootout”), Singleton’s commentary is unusually detailed and how-to, explaining his thinking behind framing, writing, camera movements, props and set design, and casting (on Flanagan: “She had this beautiful white mane of hair and she reminded me of my English teacher”), even the fact that there’s an Iraqi voice on the background radio when Evelyn is killed. He knows what the film is (“one for them,” a rowdy Saturday matinee action flick) and yet he’s made it with respect. Four Brothers may be noisy, nutty, and excessive, but it’s put together like a real movie.
With deft early strokes, Four Brothers makes clear that even though the crime seems a random convenience store hold-up gone wrong, it’s really something else. “I love this part of the movie,” says Singleton as the camera pulls out from the store’s exterior following the off screen bang-bangs that signal her violent death, “because this establishes the whole crux of the movie, this lovable woman getting killed and then boom, the story starts. And this moment right here reminds me of a drive-in movie in 1974, you know: you fade in, and hear the music.” That music would be Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” and the car is Bobby’s (Mark Wahlberg), booming down the highway on the way home for mom’s funeral. And it’s nothing but trouble from here on out.
Bobby and his three brothers are instantly under surveillance by the local PD — Green (super smooth Terrence Howard, in one of three eye-catching performances in 2005) and Fowler (Josh Charles) — anticipate trouble. the cops sit in their unmarked obvious car and watch the guests arriving for the wake, and Green introduces them by name and degree of “fuck-up-ness.” Bobby’s the “number one heavyweight champion fuck-up of the family,” jarhead Angel (Tyrese Gibson); is the “pretty boy, ex-hustler, and soldier,” townie Jeremiah (André Benjamin) is settled down, married to Camille (Taraji P. Henson), and “first class fuck-up, third class rocker” Jack (Garrett Hedlund) sputters and hangs his head, apparently too used to being judged in the negative. “If this woman’s such a goddamn saint,” wonders Fowler, “How’d she end up raising four total fuck-ups?” Okay, we get it.
As the cops come round to harass the boys, the camera hangs low and looks up, so they’re framed opposite sides, looking, just like Singleton says, like they’ve walked into a Western: “You notice in all the old Westerns, there’s a lot of coverage in those movies, they basically let things play out, but they used the environment.” And damned if the next shot, from inside Jeremiah’s house, uses the same sort of deep space and internal farming John Ford perfected (the plot is reportedly inspired by Henry Hathaway’s The Sons of Katie Elder). Already, you’re liking this movie more than you thought you would, and it’s only eight minutes in.
Just so, the execution is sharp throughout. While the brothers slip in and out of action and melodrama modes, Peter Menzies Jr.’s camera makes their exploits unexpectedly compelling. While Bobby insists that mom’s murder is suspicious that she was not an accidental victim of “friggin’ gangs” (as Singleton puts it, “He don’t take no shit from nobody”), Jeremiah is concerned with getting his daughter to her after-school activities, and Jack’s looking for quiet time to strum his guitar. Angel hooks up with his old girlfriend, the egregiously “hot-blooded” Sofi (Sofía Vergara), who provides distraction for him and not a little annoyance for his brothers.
Soon they decide that Evelyn was killed on purpose, and the movie begins in earnest. The brothers start tracking down informants and suspects. Overcome by righteous anger, Bobby sees no problem with dropping one interviewee out a window (“He ain’t dead,” he declares, “He’s just fucked up,” this as the camera offers a throbbing close-up of a bone jutting out of his leg, or, as Bobby puts it, with a “Chinese spare rib hanging out of his leg”) or shooting another two full of holes. (“Think about the Western when you watch this sequence,” instructs Singleton, “You start with [the fucked-up guy] in the foreground and you tilt up” to see the brothers walk to him to “talk.”)
Four Brothers assumes the half comic, half chilling logic where the good guys are plainly outrageous, but compared to the bad, they look rational. Here, the major bad guy is Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the most depraved gangster this side of Jeffrey Wright’s psycho killer in Singleton’s Shaft. (Singleton points out that Ejiofor was “robbed of an academy Award nomination” for his incredible work in Dirty Pretty Things, just before Victor launches into one of his ugly-guy diatribes; the director adds later that he had him look at Yaphet Kotto movies as prep, and a couple of expressions are dead-on.) Not only does Victor wear a very furry, PETA-defiant designer parka, but he treats all his workers and associates badly. When a pocketed councilman (Barry Shabaka Henley) stops by Victor’s 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 arty. As Singleton sees it, the outsized violence delivers to audience expectations: they’re “with it,” he says, as the bullets fly and the bodies fall. One car chase is especially ingenious, as it’s not about the spectacular driving, but about blindness amid swirling snow. Slowed by the snow and ice, the brothers drive on, implacable. The showdown comes on ice as well — literally on frozen-solid gigantic lake, where Victor (looking “like a big old badger,” says Singleton, observing his extreme low angle and the big fat coat his villain wears). All white, all around them, the opponents stand off. It’s Western and bad-ass, and it’s laborers and unions. “The plot is just so old-fashioned, man,” Singleton says. He loves his work.