The most casually preposterous movie to open this weekend is also the most wholly satisfying entertainment. Get over the fact the movie is set in a Detroit where rampant, open lawlessness — including, but not limited to, shootings, high-speed car chases, gangs with machine guns blasting away an entire house in broad daylight, and people being dropped five or so stories to get them to talk — provokes not one police response or so much as raises an eyebrow. Four Brothers is a stylish revenge flick with A-picture performances and direction that obscure its B-picture soul.
Yep, the movie’s a remake of the Henry Hathaway Western The Sons of Katie Elder with John Wayne and Dean Martin. And no, Brothers isn’t a lot more than The Sons of Katie Elder ‘n the Hood. That fact probably accounts for the movie’s level of preposterousness, since the story translates nicely to its modern urban setting, but the vigilante justice of the wild-and-woolly West doesn’t — no matter how bad you think things might be in Detroit.
In this version, Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), a well-loved woman who specializes in finding permanent homes for foster children, is killed in what appears to be a convenience-store robbery. However, her adopted sons — Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), Angel (Tyrese Gibson, Baby Boy), Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin, aka OutKast’s Andre 3000, Be Cool) and Jack (Garrett Hedlund, Troy) — discover that her death was deliberate, and set out to revenge themselves on those responsible, uncovering much corruption and double-dealing in the process.
Plotwise, this is pretty standard stuff, but John Singleton (making a nice recovery from 2 Fast 2 Furious), his cast, and screenwriters David Elliot (The Watcher) and newcomer Paul Lovett, turn it into something a little bit more.
The movie was built around Wahlberg — based on his commercial success in The Italian Job and his critical one in I Heart Huckabees — and was originally known as “Untitled Mark Wahlberg Project.” So it’s a credit to Wahlberg, Singleton and the writers that it ended up being more an ensemble work than a showcase for the one actor. That’s also in the movie’s favor, since Wahlberg occasionally succumbs to his old trick of the frozen, furrowed brow to make him look menacingly grim, though for the most part he gives a performance that’s nearly on a par with his turn in Huckabees, even if the role lacks that level of richness.
Better, the film manages to make this racial (and in one case, possibly also sexually oriented) mismatch of brothers — the four children who’d gone so astray that Evelyn couldn’t find them homes and adopted them herself — fully believable as a family, accepting each other’s strengths and weaknesses, quirks and peculiarities as a matter of course. And this is good, even great, since it gives the movie a resonance that lifts it ever so slightly above its genre.
The rest of the cast delivers, too, especially Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow) as a sympathetic cop and Taraji P. Henson (another Hustle and Flow veteran) as Jeremiah’s long-suffering wife. The real surprise, though, is the innately sympathetic Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things) cast against type as a thoroughly vicious, completely vile gang boss — something he seems to relish pulling off, and does.
But don’t get the idea that this is finally anything more than a crowd-pleasing actioner where you want to see the bad guys get their just desserts. It isn’t. One of its stars may be a rapper, but this is ultimately a rather old-fashioned movie with a soundtrack containing nary a hint of rap, crunk or any other hip-hop variant. It starts with Flannagan listening to the Jefferson Airplane’s “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love” on her car radio and then proceeds to present us with an almost completely Motown soundtrack for the rest of the film.
Brothers almost feels like a relic from an earlier time. People don’t listen to CDs, they play records (remember those?); in fact, Angel irritates his brothers by pelting them with 45 record adapters at one point. Somehow this very “backward” quality makes Singleton’s film feel fresher than a lot of movies that strive to be contemporary. It also affords Brothers with both an identity and the sense of taking place in a kind of separate world where its lack of logic goes down a bit more easily.
As violent, vulgar, engaging entertainment of a kind where it’s best not to question the morality too closely, Four Brothers is one of the brighter spots on the movie-going scene right now.
Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke