What a crazy, mixed-up, completely ridiculous movie Four Brothers is. Promoted by the studio as a gritty revenge thriller, the actual film is part serious character melodrama, part campy '70s-style exploitation flick, part Western anti-hero posturing, and part unapologetically dumb action movie. It certainly wasn't the movie I expected it to be, and may not even be the movie anyone who worked on it originally set out to make, but in its own way the picture congeals into something entertaining almost despite itself.
The title characters are played by Mark "Don't Call Me Marky" Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson (model, singer, and occasional actor), André Benjamin ("André 'Ice Cold' 3000" of the hip-hop duo OutKast), and Garrett Hedlund (who?). Together they form the racially mixed, harmonious rainbow coalition of adopted sons of the sweetest old lady in Detroit. Mama Evelyn Mercer is a much beloved figure in the neighborhood and an outspoken do-gooder community activist, so obviously she has to get shotgunned in the face during the first scene. Returning to town for her funeral, the notoriously troublemaking Mercer boys reunite for the first time in years and, having little confidence in the police, make a pact to track down the killers to exact some deserved retribution. After all, wouldn't breaking the law and murdering anyone in their way be just the thing to make their kind-hearted momma proud? Lead by the hothead Wahlberg, the boys beat the crap out of local thugs and tear through the greater Detroit metro area with guns a-blazin', until uncovering the shocking truth that mom's death wasn't just a typical convenience store hold-up. In fact, the old lady wasn't a random victim at all. Well, you can imagine how much that's going to piss the Mercers off.
John Singleton directs, and based on his last few movies I get the sense that the filmmaker has gotten so fed up with criticisms about not living up to his early potential that he just doesn't care anymore. How else to explain the Shaft remake or 2 Fast 2 Furious? Singleton's approach here seems to be to play the whole picture by the seat of his pants, allowing the actors to improvise half their lines and paying very little attention to things like story logic or dramatic consistency. His main characters are a bunch of dim-witted knuckleheads without much in the way of sense, constantly whipping out their guns in public anytime they see a suspicious face and blasting away whenever or wherever they feel like it. Naturally, there's never a cop in sight during these escapades, including a lengthy, grisly car chase that culminates in a spectacular crash and blatant execution. After the bad guys launch a full-scale, heavily armed commando assault on the Mercer house, Wahlberg and Tyrese have to call out, "We need an ambulance! Somebody help! Call 911!", as if the extended volleys of machine gun fire and seemingly dozens of deaths in the street weren't enough to clue their neighbors in. I guess Detroit is an even tougher town to live in than I thought.
In the midst of all this silliness, the lead actors somehow manage to form likeable, engaging characters with a convincing brotherly bond. André Benjamin is particularly surprising as the respectable one who doesn't want any part of his siblings' foolish scheme until pushed too far. Wahlberg knows exactly what type of movie he's in, and shamelessly plays a goofball who spends as much time ragging on his little brothers as he does shooting up the town. Then we have the supporting players, filled with some downright bizarre casting choices. Nerdy Josh Charles (Sports Night) is wildly miscast as an abusive cop, and the normally reserved British/Nigerian character actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Serenity) plays far against type as an outrageously over-the-top mack daddy pimp gangster. Singleton must have had quite a laugh when filling those roles. Terrence Howard shows up too, (literally) wasted in a thankless part as the only honest cop in town.
Although Singleton denies the influence, the script by David Elliott and Paul Lovett is clearly patterned after the old John Wayne Western The Sons of Katie Elder. The director would rather it be compared to Dirty Harry or Death Wish. The characters all feel trapped in the '70s, revisiting their mother's home to find their old rooms unchanged since their high school days. The soundtrack is also littered with old Motown R&B chestnuts. The story has too much set-up and at times almost lethargic pacing, not to mention a plot that veers all over the place and rarely makes any logical sense. Singleton remains unconcerned with such things and just pushes through, focusing on the enjoyable character interaction and a suitably bleak Detroit winter atmosphere. The action sequences, when they come, are well-choreographed and exciting, yet feel just as loose and off-the-cuff as the rest of the movie. There's a nifty car chase through the icy streets and a big chaotic shootout, but the picture climaxes with of all things a fistfight on a frozen lake.
Four Brothers is a weird, unconventional star vehicle for its four leads, an unabashed B-movie that doesn't quite know what it wants to be. I wouldn't exactly call it a good movie, but I was entertained while watching it, even if mostly in bemused disbelief at much of what was happening. It may be a mess, but it's an enjoyable one.
The HD DVD:
Four Brothers debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Four Brothers HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
This transfer is, in a word, beautiful. The picture is sharp and clean, with no noise, grain, or artifacts of any kind. Black levels are deep and contrasts excellent. The image has terrific detail and textures, with fantastically bold and striking colors. The disc has a very rich, film-like appearance and I was hard pressed to find a single flaw in it. This is one of the best High-Def discs released to date.
The Four Brothers HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 or DTS-HD 5.1 formats. Note that the "DTS-HD" track is not the "DTS-HD Master Audio" lossless format that HD DVD will some day be able to deliver. Regular "DTS-HD" is just a rebranding for standard DTS audio as found on DVD (the 1509 kb/s full bit-rate variety).
The soundtrack is rather subdued for an action movie, but has some thumping bass and at least a few aggressive surround sequences. The shootout at the Mercer house makes a great audio demo with its bullets whizzing through every speaker, and the blizzard car chase features some smashes that will shake your chair. The '70s tunes on the soundtrack have an appropriately 1970s level of fidelity but sound pretty good overall. If perhaps not the greatest audio track ever recorded, I have no complaints. I tested both the DD+ and DTS options and found them about equal.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French DD+ 5.1 or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression, except the trailer which is encoded in High Definition using VC-1.
All of the supplements from the DVD have carried over.
No interactive features have been included.
- Audio Commentary - John Singleton speaks intelligently about his directorial choices and his attachment to the characters.
- The Look of Four Brothers (10 min.) - Discussion of the movie's style, from its photography to costumes to the transformation of Toronto into Detroit.
- Crafting Four Brothers (11 min.) - The screenwriters describe their intention to make an "urban Western".
- Behind the Brotherhood (10 min.) - A look at the casting and the actors' interaction on set.
- Mercer House Shootout (4 min.) - Anatomy of the movie's biggest action scene, from storyboards to choreography to logistics.
- Deleted Scenes (11 min.) - Nine scenes are provided, including a fully-staged version of the mother's murder and an endlessly long extension of her funeral. None of these scenes needed to be in the movie.
- Theatrical Trailer - Provided in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and High Definition.
I still don't really know what to make of the movie, but I had a good time watching Four Brothers. It's an enjoyable mess. I'd normally be inclined to advise a rental, but the HD DVD transfer is so gorgeous it's worth a purchase just to marvel at. For the hell of it, I'm going to recommend it.
Friday Night Lights (HD DVD) - Whaddaya know, Garrett Hedlund is in another movie on HD DVD!
Hustle and Flow (HD DVD) - Terrence Howard
Serenity (HD DVD) - Chiwetel Ejiofor
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