by HELEN GEIB
The first scene of director Antoine Fuqua’s Brooklyn’s Finest is a manifesto of earnest moral purpose. Two men are talking in a car at night. The car is parked on a deserted, poorly lit street. One of the men is telling an anecdote of a recent brush with the law; it is clear from his story that he is a career criminal. We don’t know anything about the second man other than that he is speaking with the first on terms of equality. Although delivered almost like a shaggy dog story, the gist of the anecdote is plainly that the world is a place of moral confusion: the wrong thing can be the right thing if done for the right motive; some things are simultaneously wrong and right; right and wrong are questions of degree. There is an act of sudden violence. The survivor grabs a bag out of the victim’s dead hands and walks away down the street. He casts a dramatically elongated shadow that jerks uneasily in tempo with with its owner’s hurried pace and nervous movements. In marked contrast to the film’s dominant visual aesthetic of peripatetic camera movements and rapid cutting, the camera films the “escape” in a single, long take from a fixed position in the shadows behind the car.
The opening offers a foretaste of what is good and bad about the film. It raises weighty themes, and its determination to be consequential is admirable. However, that determination is given expression in an over-determined plot and aggressively insistent visual pointers. The filmmaking smothers the characters, while a progressively heavier reliance on implausible plotting and shallow characterization climaxes in absurdity.
The story is actually three inter-cut stories following three cops: a narcotics detective (Ethan Hawke) with a plan to grab money from the scene of a drug bust; a once-ambitious officer (Don Cheadle) who has been undercover in a drug gang for too long; and a burned-out beat cop (Richard Gere) with one week left to retirement. That all of these are cop movie cliches is obvious, and in fact, part of the film’s program is to rediscover the dramatic truth underlying the by now overly-familiar situations.
The first two stories are partially successful in this attempt. Hawke and Cheadle invest their characters with great dramatic intensity- more really, than freshman writer Michael C. Martin’s script can comfortably support. The first story also offers a credible and sympathetic explanation for the good man’s wrong acts in his desperation to alleviate his family’s grinding poverty, bolstered by believable domestic scenes featuring an under-utilized Lili Taylor as the supportive wife. Meanwhile the second story is improved by the compelling interplay between the cop and his target, a fresh out of prison and looking for a big score drug dealer played by Wesley Snipes.
Gere is not able to work equal on-screen magic, but in fairness, the greatest actor of his generation could not overcome the limitations of the material. The set-up for the third story is a sign of the storytelling troubles to come. Not content with the massive cliche at its center, the script piles on one more cliche after another. His wife has left him and he’s consorting with a prostitute. A young, Latina, coke-snorting prostitute whose room is filled with Marian devotional items and who he imagines he’s in love and wants to run away with. He is teamed in his final seven days on the job with not one, but two fresh-faced rookies. Both of whom immediately meet stunningly implausible disaster on the job. And that’s not nearly the whole of it.
All of the film’s many dramatic contrivances are purposeful and because the film has a worthy purpose, I did not dislike it. But it is painfully contrived and I wish it had not tried to say so much, or tried so hard to be meaningful that it ended in twisting the story and losing the characters for the sake of the message.
1 1/2 stars
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