So, in an attempt to get the unfortunately atrocious Alice in Wonderland out-of-mind as quickly as possible, I pulled an audible last Friday night and decided to follow it up immediately with Antoine Fuqua’s conflicted cop saga Brooklyn’s Finest. And, well, I’ll give Fuqua’s film this: At least it turned out to be weirdly lousy, rather than just straight-up lousy like Alice.
Still, despite some quality performances throughout, Brooklyn’s Finest is not a movie I can really recommend. In its gritty street rhythms, shades-of-gray plotting, and all-star cast of dirty cops with streaks of nobility, the film clearly aspires to the greatness of The Wire. (In fact, Michael K. Williams (Omar), Hassan Johnson (Weebay), and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (Clay Davis) are all in this movie, the latter prompting an hilarious chorus of “shheeeeeeeeeits” at my late-night showing.)
But, for all its admirable ambition, this movie ends up feeling a lot closer to Crash. Like that film (and like another considerably over-praised film of the same type, Babel), Brooklyn’s Finest tells three disconnected stories, seemingly in the hope that they might add up to more than the sum of their parts. But, other than the fact that some of these cops work in the same precinct, and all of them rather implausibly end up in the same apartment block in the climax, they don’ t really have anything to do with each other. Unlike The Wire, where actions on the street (say by Bubbles, or Herc) will reverberate through the system and have unintended consequences that affect the highest levels of the Game (say, the Mayor’s office), nothing that happens in any of these stories has any effect on the other tales being told. In other words, these dirty cop vignettes are basically stovepiped, and, as such, they’re somewhat redundant.
So, instead of one story, you get three. And, also like Crash, the writing’s pretty ham-handed in all of them. For an excellent example of this tendency, look no further than the opening minutes, as — message alert! — Vincent D’Onofrio gives an on-the-nose speel about there being no right or wrong, just “righter and wronger.” Alrighty then. (Speaking of D’Onofrio, between he, Will Patton, and the Wire guys, Brooklyn’s Finest sometimes feels like a Recovery Act-funded jobs program for cop and robber actors. I spent much of the movie half-expecting Michael Rooker to show up.)
So, with the writing dropping the ball rather egregiously, the actors involved have to carry Brooklyn’s Finest on their own for its two and a half hours. And, as it turns out, they’re mostly up to the task. As the working-class Catholic cop in desperate need of some drug money to fix his mold problem (yes, you read that right), Ethan Hawke gives a variation on his twitchy loser from Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and is better than the material warrants. (Strangely enough, he’s also once again paired up with Brian O’Byrne.) Meanwhile, Richard Gere is miscast as the lousy, alcoholic peace officer a week out from his pension — I would’ve gone Fred Ward — but he struggles through, despite some excruciatingly embarrassing scenes involving his hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend. (One involving fellatio, the other the Honeydrippers.)
And the best third of Brooklyn’s Finest involves Don Cheadle as the Departed-style cop “lost in the Game,” i.e. so deep-undercover he’s forgotten which way is up. This is not only because Cheadle is great, as per the norm, but also because he’s got the ablest supporting cast to work with — the aforementioned Will Patton as his handler, Wesley Snipes in a nod to his New Jack City days, Michael K. Williams as the anti-Omar, and a couple of scene-stealers in Hassan Johnson (who, outside of a well-placed Busta Rhymes track, has the funniest line in the movie) and Ellen Barkin (who aims to prove she has the biggest cajones in the film, by a country mile.)
Still, even tho’ I recently made the case for “actors workshop”-type movies with 44 Inch Chest, actors can only do so much. And, despite the occasional well-performed scene, Brooklyn’s Finest is just too fumbling and Haggis-y in the writing department to really warrant the time investment. Put briefly, Brooklyn’s Finest is to cop movies what Milwaukee’s Best is to beer — only a worthwhile option if you’re intentionally slumming it.