A cliche-ridden repeat offender
By John Anderson
Friday, March 3, 2010
If not for the BlackBerrys and late-model BMWs, "Brooklyn's Finest" might be construed as a trip back into the bad-old, pre-Giuliani days of crackhead New York, when crime was king, all cops were corrupt and you took your life in your hands going out for a quart of milk. If director Antoine Fuqua's ("Training Day") objective was lowering Brooklyn property values, he may have succeeded. He won't be winning any awards from real estate agents. Or Police Benevolent Associations, either.
But it's the nonprofessionals he'll really be putting off, namely the people buying tickets to what is not just a relentlessly violent but relentlessly grim drama about three cops at the end of their ropes. One is an alcoholic, suicidal patrolman on the eve of retirement (Richard Gere); one a drug-enforcement officer with family problems (Ethan Hawke); and one an undercover narcotics detective (Don Cheadle), who's torn between duty and the drug kingpin who saved his life in prison (Wesley Snipes). They're all at the breaking point. By the end of the movie you may be, too, without ever having had the least bit of doubt about where this story was going.
The misapprehension about "Brooklyn's Finest" -- which was first shown at Sundance last year and has been heavily edited since -- is that it's a movie about police. It isn't: It's a movie about movies about police. At no time will the viewer be under the impression that the performers are engaged in anything but a recycling project, regurgitating 50 years of corrupt-cop movies. Fuqua is striving for gritty street cred and instead delivers a clone.
The limited arena in which he excels is the violence itself. When Sal Procida (Hawke) goes on a raid in the Brooklyn projects -- looking to rip off dealers so he can buy his pregnant, asthmatic wife (Lili Taylor) a mold-free house -- the tension is rich, the mayhem abrupt. When Clarence Butler, a.k.a. Tango (Cheadle), operates among the lowlife coke dealers of Brooklyn or has to negotiate with his equally repugnant superiors (Will Patton and Ellen Barkin, who might as well be foaming at the mouth), the atmosphere is volatile. Fuqua, like any horror director worth his salt, knows when to have the figurative monster jump out of the bushes: a gun goes off, someone slaps a table, the orchestra cranks it up to 11.
What Fuqua can't do is get his actors to serve up screenwriter Michael C. Martin's dialogue as anything but canned ham. It's not their fault: Gere, as the gray, cynical Eddie Dugan, who has spent 22 years as a patrolman, does career weariness well; Hawke maintains a desperate, wolfish look, and Cheadle effectively plays a guy whose nervous system is a snare drum.
But when you construct a movie with three moving parts, it sort of behooves you to have them work as part of a whole. Fuqua allows his three characters to brush up against each other -- literally, in one case, when Gere bumps into Tango outside a bodega. But if you're going to allow their stories to play out in such isolation from each other, you can't really crosscut from one character to another. The audience will be looking for interrelated consequences, and there aren't any.
If all this corrupt cop stuff were new, we might be distracted from the rather pointless bloodshed and moralistic posturing and, perhaps most offensively, Sal's Catholicism, which, like some artifact from a 1930s James Cagney movie, is tossed in among the wreckage in an attempt to create gravitas. Of course, religion is often the last refuge of the sinful and desperate, and Fuqua seems to qualify.
Anderson is a freelance reviewer.
Contains violence, vulgarity, nudity and sex.