Four Brothers

| August 12, 2005

Four Brothers becomes something large by the end of the film. Unfortunately it is a big, brow-furrowing question mark. How could all those decent performances, that compelling storyline, and the backdrop of the great city of Detroit fail to deliver any cohesive message? Singleton did it, and did it big. Hats off, if only because we need to scratch our collective heads.
As the story begins we meet Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan). She has a heart made of gold, and her love is not reserved from anyone. Even when she catches a local child stealing candy she talks tough to him, but reassures him that she knows he’s a good boy. The kid leaves, Evelyn and the cashier laugh about the incident, and then it happens. While she is in the back of the store two thugs come in, steal money from the register, kill the clerk, and then find her.
Enter the four brothers. They are Evelyn’s adopted children. We learn, through a policeman filling in his partner, that these four boys were the only kids too bad from the hundreds that Evelyn had fostered that were unadoptable, so she kept them herself. Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), Angel (Tyrese Gibson), Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin) and Jack (Garrett Hedlund) are apparently rejects of rejects. They are toughs, or hustlers, or whatever else, depending on their talents. They have come together again not just to mourn their mother, but to find out what happened and seek revenge. Repeated references to the police and their ineptitude point to an at best beleaguered, and at worst corrupt, Detroit police department.
Two white brothers and two black brothers with a shared childhood and a unified mission get back to their roots as street kids while they look to avenge their mother’s death. Jeremiah seems to have come closest to the American dream. He has a wife and two children, and he is trying to work with a federal program that will help him develop condos from a dark warehouse. The rest of his brothers seem to be getting along OK, but are a little less traditionally successful.
Through various fits and starts, the foursome learn that their mother was almost certainly assassinated, and that the police really don’t seem to have a handle at all on the nature of this crime. Eventually they tie a high level criminal, Victor Sweet (Chiowetel Ejiofor) to not only their mother’s death, but the death of Jeremiah’s dream development. Yes, that Victor is a very bad man.
Four Brothers takes a lot of twists and turns not in plot, but in genre. It samples gritty crime drama as freely as buddy movies, interjects otherworldly visits from the dead mother and veiled references to child sexual abuse in between Touretic outbursts from Angel’s girlfriend Sofi (Sofia Vergara), referred to by Bobby as “La Vita Loca.” Must the Latin girlfriend always be crazy? Her jealous fits are impossible to predict and just plain dangerous to the brothers as they get closer to the real story behind the crime, but not in a way that propels the story. In fact every character in this confoundingly disparate film is set in front of us as a caricature. Tough guy, thug guy, sensitive guy, hustler guy. We are asked to accept these simple assessments of the roles, but to suspend disbelieve when the group wanders into dangerous situations and there is not a gun to be seen, or into crowd situations where they can not be overpowered. Those situations can be caricatures too. Develop the characters and put the realism on the back burner, or keep the streets hard and the people who occupy them harder. The disconnect between the two is almost as distracting as the editing, which pops from scene to scene with inconsistent motivation.
Was there simply not time to give the audience the whole picture? When this film was on it was really on. The violence was plentiful but relevant, and the foreseeable tragic loss in the final gun battle was done as tragically and painfully as a death should be, not glossed over. A snowy car chase is fast paced and exciting, and often the banter between the men is charming and plausible. Another half an hour to tell us a little more about these personages and their lives, and a little more to let us know where a dirty cop gets his entitlement from, would have made this exercise less of a brief bit of summer entertainment and more of a keeper. Even the credit sequence is bizarrely visited by a family member from beyond the grave, when the rest of the sequence is a “what are they doing now?” dénouement. Are we to believe that our fallen soldier is head banging in heaven? Somewhere someone just wasn’t watching to make sure that pieces fell into place.

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