A film review by Craig J. Koban March 11, 2010

BROOKLYN'S FINEST jj
½ 

2010, R, 140 mins.

 

Eddie: Richard Gere / Tango: Don Cheadle / Sal: Ethan Hawke / Caz: Wesley Snipes / Angela: Lili Taylor / Bill: Will Patton / Agent Smith: Ellen Barkin / Carlo: Vincent D'Onofrio

Directed by Antoine Fuqua / Written by Michael C. Martin and Brad Caleb Kane

So much of Antoine Fuqua’s new cops n' crime thriller BROOKLYN’S FINEST works so well:  It has universally strong and empowered performances quarterbacking the whole enterprise, a tangibly tense and gritty atmosphere and tone, and its direction is slickly consummate.  Its storyline is also epic and tragic in scope and feel as it chronicles three cops on personal journeys that all coalesce towards conclusions that seemed doomed from the very beginning.  Certainly, on paper, there is more than enough here to warrant an audience’s investment for two-plus hours. 

Here’s the problem, though:  First time screenwriter Michael C. Martin – who lived in the seedier areas of New York and definitely can be considered a good source for this type of somber material – pens a script that absolutely festers with derivative genre familiarity all throughout.  Too much of BROOKLYN’S FINEST is smothered by the sluggish and mechanical clichés that have dominated by so many police and gangster dramas that I began to lose count as the film progressed.  I am sure that Fuqua’s goal here was to take recognizable material and inject some new and revitalized life into it, but the end result of his work shows that all he has done is become slavish to the material instead of triumphantly transcending it.  There are so many stale, self conscious, and overused conventions and plot devices here that, by the time the film arrives at its conclusion, I felt emptier than moved and involved.  This is a large shame, because a filmmaker as talented as Fuqua and actors as confident and assured as the ones on display here deserve more than the gimmicky, episodic feel of this largely hit and miss affair. 

Much like Fuqua’s greatest achievement, TRAINING DAY, BROOKLYN’S FINEST is at ease when it deals the corruption, obsession, and personal struggles of his boys in blue and Martin’s script deals with three cops all dealing with personal demons and dicey dilemmas of some degree.    Surely, the film’s setting – the notoriously rough and crime ridden Brownsville section of the city, alongside the NYPD’s sixty-sixth prescient – acts as a macabre backdrop for the doomed struggles of its morally questionable heroes that battle with ethical issues of right and wrong.  The look of the film is dark, dreary, smoky, and grime-ridden, and appropriately so.  The mood of the film – with its characters that are all so royally unhinged and twitchy that they are one strap short of being in straight jackets – grounds the film’s verisimilitude very well.  BROOKLYN’S FINEST is a triumph of visual style and performance execution, but it’s the lackluster and predictable script that betrays it. 

The film’s first storyline of three concerns Eddie (a rock solid Richard Gere, playing a more unlikable and disagreeable character that we are accustomed to), a veteran cop that is just shy of retirement.  He’s been on the beat for 22 years and has seen it all; his track record of service has been passable, but not exemplary.  He has one goal: make it through each shift alive and, hopefully, wake up each morning without putting his gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger.  Eddie barely gets by in life, and his journey towards retirement is exacerbated by his brass’ desire to place young rookies with him on the streets, something that the fierce and depressed loner detests.  His  only solace is a hooker (played well by Shannon Kane), that services him nightly (this angle is like the darker underbelly of PRETTY WOMAN, one of Gere's more famous films), and he becomes drawn closer to her in more than carnal ways.  As his story unfolds he faces a choice that challenges the fabric of his petty existence: Will he make a heroic decision that will help cast him out of obscurity and save his soul or will he pathetically continue down to damnation? 

The second story concerns an undercover cop named Tango (Don Cheadle, as vigilant and determined as ever) that has been undercover for long time, so long that his former life has all but eroded in the background.  His superiors offer him a cozy desk job as a suit and tie detective if he is successful in his mission, but there is one catch: He has to betray the drug kingpin that he has been secretly working for, Caz (Wesley Snipes, returning to a role that he inhabits with a verve and tenacity), but the issue is that Caz once saved Tango’s life, making him deal with supreme issues of guilt over the prospect of betraying his friend.  His choice is no easy one: backstab the man that saved his life and get his promotion or jeopardize his entire career by sticking by the drug lord's side. 

The third and final storyline concerns Sal (Ethan Hawke, never more edgy and unnerving), a devote Catholic cop that finds himself with dire economic and family dilemmas.  His family is growing at an alarming rate (he has two sons, two daughters, and twins on the way) and his wife (Lili Taylor) has such chronic asthma that the shoddy conditions of their current dwelling is not only making her condition worse, but is also affecting the unborn babies as well.  Unfortunately, a cop’s salary is too paltry to accommodate for a down payment on Sal’s dream home for his struggling family, so he has been stealing money from drug busts, hiding it and saving it, so that he can take his family to the type of home and neighborhood they deserve.  The more desperate Sal gets, the looser he becomes as a vengeful and greedy canon of deception and lies, which slowly begins to haunt him (as a staunch man of faith, he knows what he is doing is wrong, but he feels that he is doing it for his family, which is all the justification he needs).  He needs one last score to put him over the top for the new home, but this score could prove to be his deadliest yet. 

The performances in BROOKLYN'S FINEST are so universally exemplary that they almost rise above the mediocrity of the script.  Gere is atypically grounded and convincing playing his disreputable cop that is looking for the moral higher ground.  Hawke is too scarily effective playing his officer with an explosive personality and dark side that struggles with the perversity of his actions.  Cheadle, always a strong and invigorating presence, brings an added layer of complexity to his otherwise routine/stock role and his moments with Snipes are among the film’s best (the two mesh together with an unforced chemistry that’s always hard to define).  Even some of the supporting performances are memorable and evocative, especially a very brief, but terrific cameo by Vincent D’Onofrio in the film’s stunning opening sequence and an unexpectedly foul-mouthed, tough as nails, and brassy Ellen Barkin that has rarely been as threatening and intimidating of a presence than here playing an cruel and spiteful FBI agent that wants to make Cheadle’s life as miserable as possible.  She has not been this finely tuned in film in years. 

Yet…having said all of that…why is this film so plagued by such a laundry list of lame and regurgitated genre clichés?  We have the cop that has a half empty bottle of whiskey and a loaded gun by his bed.  We have the hooker that is the “only one” that understands him.  We have the same cop that is days away from retirement, but is so suicidal and screwed up that he just might not make it.  We have the undercover cop that is beginning to become too friendly with the corrupt criminals that he has sworn to take down, making his choices all the more personal and problematic.  We have the deeply God-fearing cop that only wants to look out for his family’s interests, but has nonetheless become dirty in his efforts to provide for him…and it’s starting to get the better of him.  I mean…c’mon…how many times have we seen countless cop characters in films like this?  BROOKLYN’S FINEST has the veneer of a dramatic tragedy, to be sure, but the real tragedy of the film is that instead of weeping at the storylines and conclusion of them, we feel drained and dramatically unchallenged.   The film offers no real insight into these types of stories and characters and the way that all of the lives of the cops intersect near the film’s final thirty minutes underscores how convenient and tidy the script is trying to be.  The ending (or multiple endings) becomes not about fate, but how neatly the writer can bring them all together and channel them towards a finale. 

I was almost willing to give BROOKLYN'S FINEST a moderately passing grade: Everything works in the film except one of its most crucial elements, its screenplay, which takes this old-school pot-boiler about crooked, but noble-minded cops in painfully difficult moral quandaries and incredulously makes it feel more contrived and artificial than it should have been.  Perhaps this has something to do with the film in its current form.  Apparently, when BROOKLYN'S FINEST was released to film festival circuits last year it did so with a different cut and ending, which hopefully will be part of a future Blu-Ray release (the film’s current last shot to the end credits seems too messy and unsatisfying).  Ultimately, BROOKLYN’S FINEST is a real squandered opportunity; with just the right script, this could have approached the height a masterful police procedural, especially seeing the who’s who of talent on board.  The film seems too much like a countless other ones that we’ve seen before, which makes it hard for a solid recommendation on my part for 140 minutes of your time

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