'Brooklyn's Finest': Bullets and Blood
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
According to "Brooklyn's Finest" director Antoine Fuqua, the New York borough is wholly populated by whores, drug dealers and bad cops. The very air is grit-gray with doom; you know nobody in this 'hood is going anywhere but down. Spirit-killing projects and skinny houses too cramped for family are where you stay before selling out or taking a bullet. Again and again, spasms of violence splash walls with blood, as numbingly unreal as explosions of video game scarlet. Score this dead-end marathon of sex, despair and death with an insistent beat behind a melancholy slide of ominous strings.
Problem is, Mr. Fuqua's hell is disappointingly one-dimensional and, at two-hours-plus, increasingly wearisome. (Michael Martin, who wrote Showtime's memorable "Sleeper Cell," provides a far less effective script here.) Though the director of "Training Day" claims to have "lived all that," he apparently lacks the smarts or wisdom to dig under surfaces and cut through clichés. Where "The Wire" was a rich and complicated tapestry of urban corruption, "Brooklyn's Finest" comes off as "Crash"-lite: an attempt to force three discrete narrative threads (the fates of a trio of cops in crisis) into a pattern of strained significance.
"Finest" opens on a nighttime cemetery, with the camera sliding away to the street where two Brooklyn mooks sit in a parked car. Sleazebag drug dealer Vincent D'Onofrio spins a funny story about a judge who let him off because his case wasn't a "simple matter of right or wrong." Shockingly, the first-rate D'Onofrio lasts just long enough to deliver Fuqua's billboard epitaph for the sorry lives of almost all the characters, especially our three majorly screwed-up cops (Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere, Don Cheadle).
Laughing like a rabid hyena, the other mook, the greasy-haired and gaunted Hawke (also of "Training Day"), looks like he's already at the end of his tether. His Sal Rosario is a low-paid cop with a bunch of kids and a pregnant wife (twins on the way!), all stuffed into a home too small to hold them, with walls full of mold that's making mommy's asthma really, really bad. And even though saintly Lili Taylor assures her husband that she doesn't mind (after just one scene, the onetime queen of the indies disappears from the movie), Hawke goes full-on psychotic over getting enough money to buy a bigger, better house. As a member of a drug-raid team, he busts into a lot of dives full of tempting wads of cash.
Hawke plays the hell out of this self-absorbed family man who never spends time at home, as though he was being torn apart by furies (instead of suffering from surprising ignorance about birth and mold control). From the get-go, we know how this narrative thread's going to unravel. Only Fuqua's metronomic cutting away to the dilemmas of the two other cops interrupts Hawke's predictable downhill slide.
A 22-year veteran with seven days to retirement, Eddie Dugan (Gere) is a burnt-out case, alternately swilling liquor and preparing to eat his gun. Gere's once handsome, now doughy face looks like it might fall off the bone at any moment, yet it's clear that the possibility of redemption lies buried not too deep within the slack flesh. Though Eddie's relentlessly indifferent, to the wrongs he witnesses and even to his own degradation (he stands in line to bed a whore, imagining she cares for him), we'd have to work hard not to foresee his destiny.
Then there's Tango, Cheadle's undercover cop, who's jonesing for "a desk, a suit and a tie." Here's an actor who projects integrity of performance every time he faces the camera. His two-hander scenes with Wesley Snipes, playing a drug dealer who's earned Tango's friendship and loyalty, make you fantasize a movie in which these two gorgeous men could act at full force. On a rooftop, gazing out at the neon-lit city spread out in the night, Tango and Caz converse in a patois so thick you need a translator; but it's their faces, postures, the rhythms of their voices that signify. Caught between white police handlers who use him for promotions and bigger paychecks and a black gang lord who plays him fair, Cheadle's decent copper is bound to come apart.
A couple of examples of Fuqua's subtle signposts when it comes to illuminating character and choice: while Tango begs to get out of his undercover gig, the Platters wail "The Great Pretender" in the background; and after playing Judas to his drug-dealing bro, the cop takes refuge in the john, where he's mirrored many times over (read: "divided man with many faces").
Stellar supporting performers include Will Patton, the handler who strings Tango along with the promise of a detective's badge; and Michael Kenneth Williams, legendary Omar of "The Wire," confined to stereotype but still burning with potential deviltry. Then there's Ellen Barkin, outstanding as a cold-hearted Fed harpy with an evil tongue. When her racist crack ("I'm not going back in the jungle to clean up monkey s---") goads Tango into physically assaulting her, she doesn't back down an inch, ready, willing and able to give as bad as she gets.
Inevitably, the paths of our principals cross on the way to their respective crucifixions and redemption. Despite all the dramatic huffing and puffing to get to these insistently emblematic climaxes, this police parable's sturm und drang adds up to very little, and that goes double since the director caved to advice that he cut an uncompromisingly downbeat final shot, in favor of a lame freeze-frame cop-out.
Hard truth is that Fuqua's cop-shop movies, while hardly the work of a visually impaired hack, are inescapably literal and mundane. This is a director who lacks the juice to elevate human desire and despair out of bloody mayhem to transformative tragedy. It'll be a long, long time before Antoine Fuqua can aspire to the illustrious company of Martin Scorsese ("The Departed"), Sidney Lumet ("Prince of the City") and Abel Ferrara ("King of New York").
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.