Anchor Bay // 2009 // 132 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 6th, 2010
This is War. This is Brooklyn.
The guy who directed Training Day returns to the mean streets to give us another peek into the lives of cops. Although Brooklyn's Finest isn't nearly as successful as his breakthrough flick, it has enough strong performances for many viewers to brave an otherwise tired story.
The BK housing projects are under siege. A dirty cop has robbed a young black man who just happened to be a graduate student, so the whole department is under scrutiny and they need a big PR win to make things right. With the focus on the housing projects, three cops find their orbits intersecting with the projects. Eddie (Richard Gere, Chicago) is a tired beat cop a week from retirement, Tango (Don Cheadle, Boogie Nights) is an undercover cop who might have to bust a guy who saved his life, and Sal (Ethan Hawke, Daybreakers) is an honest cop who has to make some tough choices to feed his family. Their lives will all come together in the BK projects, and none of them will leave unchanged.
When you cast the guys who played Wee-Bey and Omar as street-level hustlers and the gentleman who gave us State Senator Clay Davis in a film that revolves around the drug trade and a housing project, comparisons to The Wire are inevitable. Those are big shoes to fill, and even comparing Brooklyn's Finest to the show would be out of line if the differences weren't illuminating, but they are. The Wire succeeded, in large part, because it showed how small human decisions could add up to great injustices. On the flip side, the show also demonstrated the individual cost of large organizations on the citizens of Baltimore. The view was systemic, but never lost sight of the effects of the system on individuals. More importantly, it did a great job of pointing out social problems in a way that never lost sight of storytelling drama. Brooklyn's Finest aims for that level of pathos and social critique, but fails on all counts.
The film's first problem is cliché. One of our "heroes" is a burned-out cop about to retire. Another is an undercover agent who's getting a little too comfortable with his cover. The third is the underpaid father who just needs a little money for his children. Perhaps the only thing original is putting all three of them in a movie together. The plot takes these three basic stories and weaves them around a simple story of police corruption, drugs, and a housing project. The ending kinda-sorta goes for that multi-stranded Crash-style narrative, except these character earn fates that are obvious from their opening shots and ultimately they're unconnected except for geography. Their stories don't illuminate each other, help each other out, or offer an commentary on the world at large.
The second problem may be related to the first, but Brooklyn's Finest doesn't have anything to say. I didn't like Crash, but at least it showed human depravity to a purpose. Brooklyn's Finest, however, doesn't offer a reason or a lesson. The drug trade it shows is simplified and taken for granted, racism seems more like a practice for politicians than a street-level problem, and there's no attempt (aside from a single speech by Ethan Hawke) to point out the problems with the police system. So why then, are we being asked to watch this film? After 132 minutes, the answer to that question still isn't clear, as the film's ending relies on pyrotechnics of "fate" rather than character development or clever plotting. The film also wants to be "tough," Bad Lieutenant style. There's even a scene where Richard Gere tells a prostitute about his day while she's performing oral sex on him, but it feels like a desperate move.
Finally, the film is just the wrong running time. At 130 minutes the film is either too long or too short. Cut it a little tighter to 100 or 110 minutes and Brooklyn's Finest would be a tight little thriller. Let it run out a bit to three hours and there'd be more time to really explore each of the three main characters. As it is the film is just too long to be consistently interesting -- it really starts to flag in the third act -- but also feels like we're losing interesting back story for Ethan Hawke and Richard Gere's characters.
From above, Brooklyn's Finest is a mangled forest in need of some serious pruning, but take a closer look and several of the trees are worth saving. The acting in the film is simply fantastic. A director has to work overtime to make Ethan Hawke, Don Cheadle, and Richard Gere look bad, and evidently Antoine Fuqua is lazy. These guys are great in just about every scene despite the stereotypical characters they're playing. The opening scene, between Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio, is a master class in crime acting. When Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes meet for the first time in the film it's a scary game of who-will-blink-first. In addition to the main actors the rest of the roles are filled with talent, from the aforementioned D'Onofrio to Ellen Barkin. I don't think the film is worth watching just for the acting, but it comes pretty darn close.
I'm not a huge fan of Antoine Fuqua's script choices, but the man knows how to hire a cinematographer. Brooklyn's Finest has a gritty, stylized look that always seems fresh and never becomes a parody or tries too hard. It doesn't make Brooklyn into the kind of city most people would want to visit, but the film does make the borough visually interesting.
Although it didn't light up the box office, Brooklyn's Finest gets a solid DVD release. The film's stylized look is supported by the 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer here. Colors are intentionally muted, detail generally strong, and black levels especially impressive. The 5.1 Surround audio does a good job with the film's dialogue, and gets appropriately loud during the film's more violent moments. There's some use of the surrounds, but most of the film is concentrated in the front of this mix.
The first extra up is a commentary with Fuqua. He's very appreciative of his actors, and obviously gave a bit of thought to the film's symbolism. However, his comments eventually devolve into a discussion of what's on the screen, and many of the things he said he intended for the film don't seem to have come off, which makes his commentary somewhat pretentious. Then there are four featurettes, totaling around 25 minutes that cover everything from Fuqua on the set to the real location and its residents. Finally, the disc includes 30 minutes of deleted scenes that really flesh these characters out (especially Ethan Hawke's) and provide some alternate endings.
Brooklyn's Finest is a bit of a head-scratcher. Individual moments are well-nigh brilliant, as sparks fly between the talented actors on the screen. However, a seriously lagging third act and a total lack of any coherent meaning or lesson rob the film of whatever impact it was supposed to have. Fans of the actors (or the director, I guess) should probably give this one a rental with low expectations, while those with no interest in the actors should steer clear of an otherwise uninspired story.
Because the acting keeps it afloat, Brooklyn's Finest is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes