Monday, August 8, 2005

Review: Four Brothers (2005)

Four Brothers
100 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Four Brothers is another in the continuous round of the 'either/or' career of John Singleton. Ever since getting burned by the critical and box office disappointment of Rosewood back in 1997 (8 years? God, I'm getting old!), Singleton has smartly interchanged mainstream genre pictures (Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious) with more personal, cheaper, artier films (Baby Boy, Hustle N' Flow, which Singleton produced). Since Hustle N' Flow just came out and we have another Singleton picture, of course this means Four Brothers must be the commercial venture.

The plot? Well, this one's easy. Four foster brothers reunite in Detroit after years apart when the saintly woman who raised them is murdered during an apparent convenience store robbery. Vengeance is eventually theirs. As for our brothers, we have Bobby (Mark Wahlberg, overacting and proving that his brother Danny really is the superior thespian), the hot head who pulls his gun at every possible moment and sometimes forgets to ask questions after shooting. We have Angel (Tyrese Gibson), a low-key lothario who accidentally gets himself into a committed relationship with Sofi (Sofia Vergara, overplaying the 'oh no you didn't' Latina stereotype that's been spoofed on Scrubs far too often to take seriously anymore). We have Jack (Gerrett Hedlund), the youngest and most naive of the group who might be gay but is definitely a washed out third-rate rock star (that the character is probably gay without displaying a single gay stereotype is refreshing). Finally we have Jeremy (Andre Benjamin), the family man who stayed in the neighborhood.

As for the victim, Evelyn (Fionnula Flanagan) gets only one scene in the present tense, but that scene is so good and so definitive that the ghostly flashbacks are redundant (not to mention poorly staged and trite). Her establishing scene sets her up as an uncommonly positive, good, nurturing person, and a firm believer in the quality of others. Which is why she'd be the last person to approve of the vigilantism that gets carried out in her name, and that's the movie's biggest problem. Of course, her murder (and the murder of the store employee who is never mentioned again) wasn't just a hold-up, but a hit; otherwise it'd be a very short movie. This makes the brothers even angrier, and thus they amp up their levels of violence. Why her being the victim of a scheme makes her death worse than her being a victim of random chance and petty cruelty is a valid question. I have to say, if I'm ever the victim of violent death, I'd much prefer to be the victim of a diabolical plot, rather than the victim of walking into the wrong convenience store, but that's me.

The brothers (at least three of them, the film wisely leaves Jeremy out of most of the violent episodes, as he has a family to look after) immediately embark on a vicious, violent, and genuinely cruel quest to find out who killed their foster mother and why. On their quest for vengeance, they don't just rough up the obvious bad guys, they terrorize public places (even a high school basketball game), viciously beat incidental figures, and eventually execute two thugs even before they know for sure that they were guilty of anything in the first place. That scene elicits sorrowful music and a shocked reaction by the littlest brother, which led me to believe that the film was going to eventually come out against these vicious tactics. But, just in time for the climax, the film gets back on the 'payback is swell' bandwagon, and the audience was cheering along with our 'heroes'. And please explain to me how they get away with their actions at the end, as the film doesn't.

Overall issues of morality and plot logic aside, I must acknowledge that John Singleton can stage a shootout better than any American director working today. As in Shaft (which had far richer characters and better acting), he waits over an hour to stage this major action sequence, peppering the first hour with character development, brief bits of action, and plot revelations (which is how action films used to be: small bits of action with only one or two major set pieces). The second act climactic street level shoot out in Shaft was one of the all time classics, and this one is almost as good, for the same reasons. The geography is clearly established, and the shots are wide and expansive. The violence is quick, brutal, and scary, and real people on both sides are terrified and in real jeopardy. His car chases need work, as they are shot too tightly (the cars sliding on snow is a nice touch though), but Singleton can stage a gun battle to make John Woo proud.

I've never been a fan of murderous vigilantism, so I'm not prone to completely enjoy a film that seems to advocate it on any level beyond fantasy wish fulfillment. It is telling that most of the information discovered by our heroes is also discovered, soon afterward, by police officers using normal investigative techniques. This is not a world where justice needs to be served on the streets. The police have the matter well in hand, so there is no need for outside punishment. In fact, their actions seem to bring about only more suffering and violence, a fact again forgotten by the film's action climax.

Singleton could have made an empty-headed gung-ho 1980's Death Wish 3-type action thriller. Or he could have made a thoughtful probing thriller about four brothers whose reckless quest to avenge their mother turns them into the very same type of punks that killed her in the first place, shaming her good name in the process. That Singleton doesn't know which film he wants to make renders the film confused and uneven. His attempts to make the film somewhat resemble the second, more challenging idea is noble. But, a noble failure is still a failure. The audience may cheer when the bad guys get what's coming to them, but you know Evelyn is weeping.

Grade: C-

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