Director Antoine Fuqua has built a career on mediocrity, hitting a few cinematic highlights (“Training Day”), but mostly sticking to the comfort of generic thrillers devoid of sensational feats of filmmaking. As imperfect as it is, “Brooklyn’s Finest” is perhaps the closest Fuqua will ever come to true greatness, revealing a deft command of nerve-racking criminal moods and multi-character tragedy, showing something approaching range while working out a screenplay soaked in oily despair. Missteps abound, but “Brooklyn’s Finest,” when firing on all brooding cityscape cylinders, is a convincing, commanding motion picture.
For three New York City police officers, the job, and life itself, has reached a point of no return. Eddie (Richard Gere, blinky but gnarled) is seven days from retirement, left to contemplate an empty existence where suicide is a daily consideration, and his only emotional outlet is a well-rehearsed prostitute. Tango (Don Cheadle) is an undercover cop posing as a drug lord, watching his criminal compatriot (Wesley Snipes, in a restrained return to form) return to power after a lengthy prison stretch. Frustrated with his stint as a thug, Tango is forced to choose between his sense of honor and his job as his superiors (Will Patton and a fanged Ellen Barkin) force him to turn on his drug family. Sal (Ethan Hawke) is a family man and a practicing Catholic facing a pregnant wife (Lili Taylor) at home suffering from mold poisoning. Attempting to steal drug money to purchase a new dwelling, Sal is pushed to his limits as his police duty stands in the way of his domestic dreams.
The screenplay by Michael C. Martin is not a hotly original piece of writing, firmly shadowing well-worn cop film formula. What it lacks in innovation it makes up for in bloody knuckles and intensity, submitting three men at the end of their rope, trapped behind badges while their situations spin violently out of control. It’s that thin line of honor that serves as the razor’s edge for “Brooklyn’s Finest,” slicing into these characters as they weave around the limits of the law.
It’s a hotheaded screenplay that proficiently intertwines storylines of diverse emotional baggage, bound together by the superficial demands of the job. These are tired men who’ve seen their share of misconduct, hoping for any sort of exit to sprint away from their professional obligation, which, for Tango and Eddie, has become a prison — a Stockholm syndrome bind that keeps them professionally comforted enough to remain in the muck. Sal is a different story, as he launches himself into a state of hysteria to give his family the life they deserve after his career and his God have failed him. He’s a man who’s come to the realization that he should take what he needs from the parasites he’s arresting, freeing him from any sense of wrongdoing.
Again, “Brooklyn’s Finest” won’t win any awards for originality, it’s better appreciated for its in-the-moment attitude and intense introspection. Fuqua guides the film steadily, splashing stomach acid around the frame as fortunes sour and brutal mistakes are made. The director is calling upon the police/gangster drama gods (Scorsese, Lumet, Friedkin) on this one, though the tone is more operatic than gritty, which Fuqua pulls off with style and suspense. The film rolls along as a fiery mood piece, not exactly throwing dramatic bolts, and those who can tune their antennae into the teeth-grinding, shifting-allegiance ambiance of the film are rewarded with a harsh, gripping depiction of moral decay, bolstered by three leading performances that hit the proper buttons of hopelessness and keep the movie flowing along.
“Brooklyn’s Finest” doesn’t form a sharp dramatic point, summoning a violent lava flow of fate to pass for a grand finale, which encourages a superb series of crisscrossing suspense set-pieces that take the men into the fluorescent bowels of an intimidating criminal community. The picture isn’t perfect, but Fuqua shows newfound control and maturity as he quests to make his mark on an overworked genre, keeping the film gripping and anguished long enough to make a substantial impression.Rating: B