A Cop Movie with Street Cred

03/04/2010 4:00 AM |

Brooklyn’s Finest
Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Brooklyn’s Finest was written by Michael C. Martin for a screenplay contest which it didn’t even win. Its creaky mechanics and shopworn characterizations frequently expose the novice’s hand, but Martin brings something arguably more important than a credits list, something a critic usually sounds like a poser for even bringing up: street cred. Born in East New York, educated at South Shore High School and Brooklyn College, and an MTA subway flagger for five years, the guy knows the borough. While the originality of the movie’s cops-on-the-edge framework can certainly be questioned, the individuality of the locations and details cannot. The movie was shot mostly in Brownsville and the Van Dyke Houses projects, to achieve the same authenticity director Antoine Fuqua sought when he shot Training Day in some of LA’s roughest areas. Thankfully, a restrained cast of famous faces replaces hammy Denzel Washington this time, and the scenery is left unswallowed.

The film interweaves the stories of three officers from the (fictional) 65th precinct, each facing momentous crises. Richard Gere’s Eddie begins his mornings bolting awake sweating from nightmares, swilling some whiskey, and shooting an unloaded pistol into his mouth before heading to work. A jaded, exhausted burnout, his only solace comes in furtive regular visits to a prostitute with whom he’s futilely falling in love, and from the fact that he’s only a week away from retirement (yep). Sal (Ethan Hawke) has a pregnant wife (Lili Taylor) who’s been infected by their ratty house’s wood mold. To make payment on new digs, he’s been skimming raid loots and even murdering perps for their ill-gotten gains. Don Cheadle’s Tango is undercover in a top Brooklyn drug gang, and the brass is pressuring him to take down its leader, Caz (Wesley Snipes). But the two go back, and Tango is loyal to him for saving his life. In short, he’s in too deep. By movie’s end, these three cops’ paths, naturally, cross.

There’s little in that description you haven’t seen before in countless noirs, procedurals, Lethal Weapon, and The Wire, but the wit and toughness of Martin’s script, and the acting master class offered by most of the leads and the bit players, elevate Brooklyn’s Finest. It has the cool efficiency (even at 140 minutes) and pleasantly dog-eared moralism of the recent What Doesn’t Kill You, even if its over-reliance on shock violence and bloodbath conclusion keep it below the standards of last decade’s finest Brooklyn cop drama, We Own the Night.

It’s a treat to have the charismatic, compelling Snipes back on the screen, and not as a vampire hunter. The actor is currently out on bail while a three-year sentence for tax evasion is under appeal. Since 2004, all of his movies have been direct-to-DVD, mostly made overseas. His Caz is just out of prison, so his hints of a Nino Brown swagger are tempered by traces of the actor’s melancholy cop turns in Murder at 1600 and Boiling Point. Cheadle is convincing as both a project badass and short-tempered officer. Hawke successfully reprises his lucrative tough guy act. Only Eddie seems miscast. A grizzled, alcoholic cop nearing retirement should probably look something like Dennis Franz or Nick Nolte. Gere, who most recently starred opposite an Akita Inu in a Lasse Hallström joint, has a face too smoothed over with Buddhist serenity and good living. The supporting cast—three Wire actors here, Ellen Barkin there—are solid, with the exception of Will Patton; the South Carolina native’s Brooklyn accent (“don’t go over dere!”) is embarrassing.

Fuqua, whose motley resume includes music videos, Chow Yun-Fat’s American debut, King Arthur, and Shooter, is sure-footed here, snaking his camera through the project hallways during the police raids, all of which are supremely loud, tense, and thrilling. Although the Marcelo Zarvos score can be too rich, the numerous scenes of macho male brooding never exhaust, thanks to Fuqua’s equal succinctness with them. Working with a tough, if banality-hobbled, screenplay, he’s made a very fine cop film, befittingly proving that Training Day was just a warm-up.

Opens March 5