Nine years and a Tears of the Sun (2003) and King Arthur (2004) later, director Antoine Fuqua has finally returned to the genre that once made him a semi-big deal: the cop drama. With Training Day (2001), Fuqua had a modestly well-received crime drama remembered more for an Oscar-winning performance by Denzel Washington than anything else. But simply calling Brooklyn’s Finest something along the lines of Training Day Redux is a bit too easy. While both films deal with the seedier sides of police life, Brooklyn’s Finest is an attempt at something a bit more ambitious.
The problem is that this ambition is superficial. The idea that Fuqua and first-time screenwriter Michael C. Martin seem to have is some sort of clever, sprawling and often bloody tale (think in the vein of a more literal- and serious-minded Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino), where multiple plotlines converge and dovetail into one during the final reel. What Fuqua doesn’t grasp is that what makes Ritchie and Tarantino’s films popular is their cinematic playfulness, meaning that Fuqua’s pursuit of a clockwork script is never able to mesh its gritty realism with its more absurd aspects.
The plot follows three Brooklyn cops at different points in their careers. Eddie (Richard Gere) is a beat cop coasting towards his retirement as a result of being mentally exhausted from the stress of more than two decades of service. He spends the bulk of the movie sulking, getting drunk, contemplating suicide and visiting his favorite call girl (Shannon Kane). At the same time, we meet Sal (Ethan Hawke), an emotionally fragile narcotics cop who’s trying to scrape up enough money to buy a new house for his ever-growing family. Unfortunately, Sal appears capable of going as far as murder to provide for his wife and kids. Lastly, we get Tango (Don Cheadle), an undercover cop who wants nothing more than to be free of his fake identity so that he may reclaim his life.
As a launching pad, there are worse concepts out there, but in the case of Brooklyn’s Finest, we get nothing more than machismo soap mixed with bushels of clichés, right down to the drunk cop who’s just too old for this crap. As far as the leads go, the film feels miscast. Gere doesn’t have the gravitas or charisma to play the world-weary cop we see. Cheadle has too much gravitas to be believable as a tough-as-nails gangster (even if his character is an undercover cop). And Hawke plays his role in the same mopey manner he does everything.
Most of the film wanders around from set piece to set piece. The three-way story too often feels uneven, especially when characters disappear for chunks of the film. The attempts at clever screenwriting are too faulty and often verge into the ridiculous. The film climaxes with each character meeting his judgment day (here, it becomes a gory story of redemption à la Pulp Fiction (1994)), all on the same block, and in a couple cases, in the same building. It’s almost laughably absurd, but it’s also the only time the film seems stylish, cohesive or quirky.
This achievement is due to Hawke’s and Gere’s characters finally making sense. Hawke flashes personality for the first time by playing his character as certifiably obsessed and borderline insane. And Gere’s seeming inability to do anything with the role other than play it excessively solemnly finally makes sense by the end of the movie, since it turns out he’s not burnt out with cop life but rather with life in general. Too bad this is all of 10 minutes tacked onto the end of two hours of self-serious cop drama. It’s enough to keep the film somewhat interesting, but not enough to keep the film from being incredibly basic. Rated R for bloody violence throughout, strong sexuality, nudity, drug content and pervasive language.