Brooklyn's Finest, the latest flick from Training Day director Antoine Fuqua, follows the lives of three Brooklyn cops- Sal (Ethan Hawke) is a seemingly good cop, family man with a slew of kids and a wife (Lili Taylor) pregnant with two more; Tango (Don Cheadle) is an undercover cop who appears to have lost his way as he plays both sides of the fence and can't seem to decide on which side he belongs; and, finally, Eddie (Richard Gere) is one week away from retirement but starts off every day with a swig of booze and an empty gun in the mouth.
It may not be immediately clear just where Brooklyn's Finest is going, but it's pretty darn clear that the ride to get there is going to be intense, action-packed, grim and outrageously violent.
It seems like Fuqua is trying, really trying, to turn Brooklyn's Finest into another Training Day powerhouse. Heck, he's even brought back that film's Ethan Hawke as a key player once again. Brooklyn's Finest even shares many similar qualities with Training Day in that it is a character-driven moral drama with hardcore, graphic action sequences and brutal scenes of violence. The recipe worked wonders for Denzel Washington, who snagged a Best Actor Oscar for his Training Day performance.
But, let's be honest.
Washington didn't actually deserve the Oscar award for his performance in Training Day. Washington's performance was just fine, but his award win had as much to do with his playing a baddie as it did with the performance itself.
There's no such "against type" casting in Brooklyn's Finest and, while the film is certainly a character-driven moral drama in the vein of Training Day, the individual stories in the film are less interesting, more predictable and the whole affair feels a lot more strategically planned rather than authentically manifested.
If not for the rock solid performances across the board, Brooklyn's Finest would likely be just another crime drama.
Brooklyn's Finest stays remarkably compelling even when the script itself falls flat. It's easy to understand why this cast signed on for the film, Brooklyn's Finest is right on the edge of being a good old-fashioned hard-boiled crime thriller with meaty, intense roles and dialogue, when it works, that is so gritty that a quality actor could swish it around before spitting it out.
As Eddie, Richard Gere projects a jaded bitterness that is so heavy and downbeat that it feels uncomfortably awkward. Gere's Eddie is an incomprehensible mix of city cop swagger with the sort of pathetic sad sack who really would date a prostitute and be able to convince himself it was love. Throughout the film's 138-minute run time, it seems obvious that Eddie is headed down a harrowing path yet Gere keeps drawing us in no matter how much we want to turn away.
Don Cheadle's Tango, on the other hand, is cut from the same cloth as Denzel Washington's award-winning baddie from Training Day. To Cheadle's credit, Tango true essence is never so crystal clear that we take sides either for or against him. Cheadle is simply too good an actor to make a lazy choice, and his portrayal here peels away layer after layer as Tango plays good cop/bad cop simultaneously. His scenes with Caz (an awesome Wesley Snipes), a drug dealer trying to go straight after a prison stint, are rich and vibrant and confounding as Tango forges what is essentially a forbidden brotherhood.
Then, there is Ethan Hawke's Sal. When Hawke first showed up on the Hollywood scene a good 20 years ago, who would have guessed that he'd turn into such a fine actor?
Not me, that's for sure.
Yet, Hawke grounds Brooklyn's Finest with its richest, fullest and most satisfying humanity as a cop whose intense love for his family is matched with equal intensity by his determination to survive on the brutal streets of Brooklyn by doing whatever it takes. Hawke nicely intertwines Sal's desperation with his humanity and turns him into the most compelling character by far in the film. As his wife, Lili Taylor does a nice job of not tossing away what is essentially a throwaway role.
As intense and violent as Training Day was, the film itself still felt like it was more about the characters and the story than the violence and grittiness itself. Too often, Brooklyn's Finest feels like the emphasis is on the grit and underside of Brooklyn rather than the stories of Sal or Eddie or Tango. The scenes of violence are, indeed, quite violent and Fuqua presents the violence relentlessly and without justification. Somehow, it is both refreshing to see such integrity yet emotionally and intellectually it still feels unsatisfying to give so much power to the violence and so little power to the stories of these three men.
Ellen Barkin and Vincent D'Onofrio are especially strong in supporting roles, in addition to Snipe's return to nationwide release after an absence of several years.
Patrick Murguia's camera work is perfectly suited to Fuqua's style of film making, and Therese DePrez's production design is a true standout in capturing that perfect blend between hopelessness and humanity, harrowing action and the sort of claustrophobic emotional journeys of all three men.
While Fuqua's Brooklyn's Finest certainly doesn't ascend to the heights of Training Day, the film is worth a view as a study of just how compelling an actor can be smack dab in the middle of a hyper-violent crime thriller. Flawed yet entertaining, Brooklyn's Finest may not be Fuqua's finest but it certainly serves up some mighty fine work from its ensemble cast.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic