Out of Antoine Fuqua’s filmography the one movie that has been held in the highest regard has been the cop drama Training Day, which had a gritty edge that was mostly due to David Ayer’s intense script. In his latest outing Fuqua tries to recapture that feeling on the East Coast with Brooklyn’s Finest, however where Training Day strove to point out the sometimes God-like power granted to, and abused by, the police in lower income neighborhoods, Finest strives to find significance in the worst cross section of society’s overseers, and fizzles in its attempts.
Comparisons to Paul Haggis’s Crash are easily seen as Finest, is structured around three cops on various rings of a downward spiral, are connected tangentially, and whose story lines come together at the end in a seemingly cathartic explosion of violence, desperately trying to conjure some sort of higher meaning.
Ethan Hawke plays Sal, the obviously corrupt one, who just wants to get a house for his wife and kids. From the beginning he is struggling with his Catholic faith, and as he folds under his self-imposed pressure to provide for his family his religious ethics fall to the wayside.
Richard Gere is Eddie, the obviously apathetic one, who just wants to make to the end of this week so that he can retire with full pension. After twenty-two years on the job the violence, the bureaucracy, the Sisyphean nature of his daily grind has hollowed out what could have been a good cop, leaving just the shell of a man.
Don Cheadle is Tango, the obviously conflicted one, who has been undercover so long he is finding it hard to remember who his friends are, the cops or the robbers. On the verge of making Detective First Grade Tango is faced with the reemergence of Caz (Wesley Snipes), the neighborhood kingpin who saved his life while he was undercover in prison.
While each of these story lines is fine by themselves we have seen them all before. The themes represented by the three leads are well tread paths already expounded on in the likes of HBO’s The Wire, To Live and Die in L.A Donnie Brasco, and countless others. Along with the themes we have even seen specific moments before. In an early scene where Eddie is seriously contemplating taking his own life, going as far as to put the gun in his mouth, writer Michael C. Martin has taken almost directly from Lethal Weapon.
And while this episode is a rerun Fuqua handles it adequately with one major misstep; there is no one to root for. All three of the leads are beyond flawed, not particularly charming, and mostly depressing. Only Cheadle’s character has anything resembling a “Good-Guy” persona, but that quickly dissolves.
It is clear that Fuqua wants the audience to see the streets, the system, the game as the villain, but he doesn’t provide us with a hero. Thus the action is okay, melodrama believable, and the acting above par (though making Ethan Hawke Irish instead of Italian would have been a bit more believable), but in the end the picture is vacant of pathos, and ultimately hard for the audience to connect with anyone on screen.
During the press round table Fuqua and his stars all professed to have deep respect for police officers and the work they do, though to watch the film it doesn’t show. Had the film been about a single cop, a “Bad Lieutenant” say, then it might have gone to show the pressures of the job, and the weakness of one man. With the triptych structure of Finest it seems to be clutching for some larger message about the men of the profession as a whole. However with almost no redemptive moments in the film the viewer comes out with a feeling that all cops are corrupt, a fairly one sided and narrow world view.
The film is remarkable in the sense that it marks Wesley Snipes’ return to the big screen after languishing so long in the direct to DVD market. His turn as the unfortunately named Casanova Phillips brings him back into the limelight, and provides the one character to get behind. Attempting to infuse a sense of humanity and world-weariness was a good touch, and something that was important to Snipes as he discussed at the press round table for the film. Having been reluctantly held up as a sort of folk hero for his role as Nico in the 1991 film, New Jack City, he wanted Caz to stray from that hard edged criminal persona, and it comes through, begging the question as to why Snipes has not been cast in these supporting character roles more often.
Per Fuqua another supporting character in the film is Brooklyn itself. While this film is not representative for the majority of the borough, Finest, was shot in and around the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, one of the most violent in New York City, and there is a feeling of menace permeating throughout the film. Downplaying former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s crack down on crime in the 1990s and Mayor Bloomberg’s current initiatives, one character in the film gives credit to the Internet and video games keeping kids off of the streets, but to watch Finest, you would never know. The violence of the film is both punishing and even senseless, both on the street and behind closed doors. In this film no one is safe from the blood. Though it all comes back to the fact that there was little to latch on to in the film. Without any sense of right, just all wrong, the violence becomes gratuitous, almost exploitative, and because of that renders itself irrelevant.
In the end Brooklyn’s Finest is not a bad film, it just isn’t a great one either. Most of the flaws are held in the script and the direction not by the cast; for every good bit of acting there is a moment of confused moralizing to offset it. No matter the lengths to push the film’s cruelty and hardness to extremes Finest lives somewhere in the middle of the road.
El Luchador Rating: 3 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)