Woop, woop, that’s the sound of da police!
"There is no right or wrong – just righter or wronger."
So says scumbag drug dealer Carlo (Vincent D’Onofrio in a scuzzily brilliant cameo) in the opening scene of director Antoine Fuqua’s Brooklyn’s Finest. As if to neatly underline this, the major theme of the movie, dodgy copper Sal (Ethan Hawke) then empties a gun in his face and robs him. Subtle, eh? But then not much is subtle in Brooklyn’s Finest which entwines Crash-style the stories of three Noo Yawk Shitty cops on a fatal trajectory.
A family man with money worries, Sal (reanimated cadaver Hawke on twitchy, need-a-fix form) murders and robs local drug dealers in order to pay for his family’s dream home. Tango (Don Cheadle) is an undercover cop who finds the line between cop and criminal blurring when he has to bring down best buddy and drug kingpin Caz (a back-from-the-dead Wesley Snipes). Suicidal veteran patrolman Eddie (Richard Gere) is a week away from retirement, a burnt-out case saddled with training a wet behind the ears rookie. Inevitably, the paths of these three very different law enforcers are destined to collide with tragic and bloody consequences.
Written by first-time screenwriter Michael Martin, Brooklyn’s Finest is an intense, if not entirely successful, paddle in New York’s scummier backwaters. And if sometimes you feel like you’ve seen all this before, it’s because you have. In better movies. Which isn’t to say Brooklyn’s Finest is bad, it isn’t. It’s just obvious. Right from the first frame there’s an air of doom-laden predictability as the film’s protagonists are slowly drawn together by fate. You know it’s all going to end in tears, these films always do, but when? Fuqua, who built his career on hyper-kinetic pop videos, has reined in the love of fast edits and slo-mo that characterises his movies and here gives us a harsh, unforgiving New York, a claustrophobic hell from which his characters can’t escape. The violence when it suddenly erupts is brutal and blistering, a million miles from the balletic cool of earlier films like The Replacement Killers and even Fuqua’s earlier wallow in police corruption Training Day. But despite his ambition and the film’s refreshingly downbeat ‘70’s feel Fuqua’s no Sidney Lumet and the film plays like a greatest hits compilation of cop movie clichés, Martin’s script enthusiastically “borrowing” (stealing) from every cop film of the last 40 years to produce a cinematic collage.
So if you’ve never seen Paul Newman play a burnt-out alcoholic patrolman looking for a last shot at love in redemption in Fort Apache the Bronx, worry not because Richard Gere’s playing the same role in Brooklyn’s Finest. If you’ve never seen Gary Oldman do his twitchy corrupt cop on the edge schtick in movies like Leon and Romeo is Bleeding now you never have to because here comes a sweaty Ethan Hawke and he’s obviously seen Gary Oldman in those films. And if you’ve never seen Sean Penn’s Judas cop wrestle with his conscience in State of Grace or Laurence Fishburne wrestle with his conscience in Deep Cover or you’ve never seen an episode of Miami Vice (not to mention the 2006 movie) where practically every week Crockett would be seduced by the criminal lifestyle and find the line between cop and criminal, then just check out Don Cheadle’s Tango with added bling.
Every film stereotype is present and correct. There’s hookers with hearts of gold, ball-busting bitch bosses (a rabid Ellen Barkin), evil gangstas, sympathetic but doomed gangstas, videogame playing gangstas, human trafficking rapists, good cops, bad cops, racist cops, rookie cops, corrupt cops, honest cops and cops playing poker in the basement. Hawke’s devout Catholic cop Sal even rails against God in a confessional while clutching the Saint Christopher medal he wears around his neck. “I don’t want God’s forgiveness. I want his help,” he tearfully wails to the priest before muttering an Our Father and heading off to shoot a couple more drug dealers. The only cliché missing from Brooklyn’s Finest is a flag-draped funeral complete with pipers. And by the end of the film they could’ve had a couple of those.
The film’s saving grace is the terrific performances by its stellar cast (and Ethan Hawke). Don Cheadle is as reliably good as ever as the conflicted Tango but is it just me or is he playing an awful lot of conflicted coppers these days? Will Patton and Brian F. O’Byrne lend solid support and Vincent D’Onofrio pretty much walks off with the film in the first five minutes. As the doomed gangster Caz, Wesley Snipes brings an easy charm to a role that’s more plot device than character and displays some of the old charisma that made him so magnetically watchable before the taxman came calling and his slide into DTV hell.
Predictably, women are given pretty short shrift in Brooklyn’s Finest, being relegated to the roles of whore, bitch and wife with Lili Taylor having the thankless task of playing Hawke’s pregnant and ailing spouse. At least Ellen Barkin gets to chew a little scenery as the tough piranha of an FBI agent who crosses paths with Cheadle. In her first major role, model turned actress Shannon Kane brings depth and warmth to the underwritten (and seriously underclothed) role of Gere’s hooker girlfriend, their scenes together displaying a wistful sweetness sorely lacking from the rest of the film.
Ethan Hawke’s showy Sal may get more screentime but Brooklyn’s Finest belongs to Gere. In his best performance in years, Gere brings to his role a subtle intensity and bruised humanity that just isn’t on the page. Eddie’s a shell of a human being, paralysed by fear and self-loathing, who can’t even work up the courage to kill himself and Gere underplays the role perfectly. His eventual redemption while hard-won is almost accidental.
While it may not be completely satisfying or as provocative as it thinks it is, Brooklyn’s Finest is a brutal, enjoyably miserable stroll down the dark side of the street, its complete lack of originality just overcome by its intensity and its fine performances. Even Ethan Hawke’s.
Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes, Will Patton, Lili Taylor, Brian F. O’Byrne, Shannon Kane, Ellen Barkin, Vincent D’Onofrio