Everything that does and does not work in Brooklyn’s Finest arrives in Scene One. A twitchy, cashstrapped detective played by Ethan Hawke is driving around with a shifty associate played by unbilled Vincent D’Onofrio. They park by a cemetery. (Warning.) Director Antoine Fuqua takes his time with this scene and doesn’t visually hype the inevitable. He and the actors finesse the encounter artfully. Yet the dialogue is such a weird combination of the stilted and the obvious, you think: Is Brooklyn’s Finest going to be like this the whole way? Good actors and a talented director doing what they can to bring the truth to a script that’s mostly bogus?
It’s a movie you truly want to like, because it reminds you of movies you did, most of them made by Sidney Lumet. First-time screenwriter Michael C. Martin lays out a big spread of law enforcement corruption, intertwining the tales of three cops in crisis. One (Hawke) has a perpetually pregnant wife (Lili Taylor), a house full of mold and a plan to buy a better future.
Richard Gere shelves most of his vanity (sorry, that haircut looks a little pricey) to play a suicidally inclined alcoholic just days from retirement. The third and most interesting, an undercover detective in trouble every which way, is portrayed by Don Cheadle, one of the best actors alive.
The problem isn’t in trying to tell three stories; the problem is Martin has made those stories so tonally similar, and grimly determinist, the threesides-of-thesame-soul strategy dies on its feet. Fuqua’s Training Day had the structural advantage of simplicity; here, with a Wire season’s worth of complication and woe jammed into 125 minutes, credibility is in short supply.
Cheadle shares a couple of scenes with Wesley Snipes, as a gangster just out of the joint, whose life he saved while working undercover in prison. It’s a pleasure to watch them go at it. (Good to see Snipes on-screen in any circum stance.)
On the other hand, like Training Day, Brooklyn’s Finest degenerates into florid movie-movie excess and depravity, which isn’t the same as gritty realism.
At the film’s 2009 Sundance Film Festival debut, the picture ended on a note three notes beyond grim. The ending has been substantially changed for the final release version, though the climax still has every cop in Brooklyn wrapping up his business in the same convenient housing project full of rotters.
I think Fuqua should do another corruption-mosaic drama; he’s a curious blend of honesty and flash, and he’s genuinely interested in what his performers can pull off in tense, claustrophobic conditions. But here, the writing has the clang of dramaturgy rather than the echo of the streets.