It's funny, how shakily Antoine Fuqua's Brooklyn's Finest starts, and how confident and sure-handed it becomes over the course of its two and one-quarter hours. In the wind-up, Michael C. Martin's script seems comprised entirely of stock characters and situations--the short-timer, the cop on the take, the undercover man who's gone too deep. But as the narrative progresses, Martin and Fuqua intertwine the stories in unexpected ways, and build an overall arc that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Richard Gere heads the ensemble as Eddie, an alcoholic wreck of a mediocre beat cop counting down his last seven days on the job. As he runs down the clock, his superiors pair him up with some rookies to show them the ropes, but all he sees are young, naïve idealists who don't know what they're doing, nor what they're in for. Working out of the same Brooklyn precinct is Sal (Ethan Hawke), whose big family is bursting out of his small tract house; in desperation, he finds himself succumbing to the temptation (and rationalizations that follow) of skimming some extra cash on drug busts. Tango (Don Cheadle), meanwhile, has been working deep cover, involved at a high level in the drug-running operation out of the notorious BK Projects. He's ready to close up shop and get the promotion he's been promised, but the powers that be want him to first help take down Caz (Wesley Snipes), an OG just out of the joint who has become his friend--and who is trying to stay on the straight and narrow.
The opening scene, in which Vincent D'Onofrio delivers a monologue about the varying gradients of right and wrong, is well-written but lands right on the nose; it's the equivalent of the Shakespearean "prologue," in which we're pretty much told exactly what to expect for the rest of the story. As we spend the opening scenes sorting through who everyone is, the picture comes on like grand opera--and Fuqua, though stylistically gifted, can tend to lay it on a little thick (dig the big cross over the basement sink as Hawke washes literal blood from his hands). With so much happening, frequently at top volume, there's not a lot of room for subtext.
Though the scenarios may be familiar, Martin's script is structurally sound; he's giving us what amount to three short stories, but it never feels as though we're channel-surfing, the way weaker multi-story narratives often do. Fuqua's steamroller direction, aided immeasurably by Marcelo Zarvos's powerful score and Barbara Tulliver's graceful editing, fold the stories together smoothly and intelligently. Fuqua deftly intercuts his scenes throughout, stacking multiple set pieces on top of each other--Cheadle, Snipes and their gang confronting a potential snitch on a rooftop, Hawke on a high-energy bust, and Gere on a deli shoplifting call that goes awry--to amp up the tension and weight of the situations.
With so much plot happening, the lead actors tend to draw on variations of their established personas, but provide fresh twists. Snipes, a fine actor who has spent the last decade or so languishing in direct-to-video releases, provides confirmation that a good actor just needs a decent role and a director who'll give him a shot. He also lucks out by having Cheadle as his scene partner; predictably, Cheadle is flat-out terrific, understanding that the key to his role is to underplay, and then choose just the right moment to boil over. Gere's noticeable lack of an accent is a bit troubling (though he's never been much of a dialectician), but his work here is powerful, predictably a tough and tender scene with his go-to call girl (ably played by Shannon Kane). Gere plays him as lost and lonely, but, importantly, not clueless. Hawke's is the weakest performance of the bunch; he has his moments, but comes off a little forced early on (particularly his hackneyed scene at confession). Fuqua fills out the supporting roles with capable character actors, including Will Patton (very good), Ellen Barkin (not so much), and Lili Taylor as Hawke's wife; their casual dialogue, full of overlaps and shorthand, establishes their relationship in just a hair's breath of screen time. (Several faces from The Wire, including Michael K. Williams, Hassan Johnson, and Isiah Whitlock, pop up as well.)
Brooklyn's Finest builds as it goes, with Fuqua finding clever ways to make the three stories propel each other, to feed of their momentum, right up through the climactic sequence that sends the three cops careening headlong right into each other's paths. The way he pounds us with violence at the climax makes the subsequent tension borderline unbearable, particularly as he understands, at a key moment, the power of thick, loud silence.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Brooklyn's Finest hits Blu-ray with a sturdy, handsome MPEG-4 AVC transfer. The 2.35:1 image is heavy on thick shadows and dark compositions, which are impressively rendered--black levels are deep and inky, with a minimum of crushing. The image is also nicely dimensional; of particular note is Cheadle and Snipes's nighttime rooftop conversation, with a clean foreground and soft focus city lights in the background. Details are good as well (particularly the leading actors' rough skin textures), and though the film is flush with night and interior scenes, the occasional daytime exteriors (like Hawke's foot chase from a brutal bust) are crisp and clean.
The disc sports both an English Dolby Digital 5.1 and English PCM 5.1 track; I split the film between them and found both to be impressive. Dialogue is clear and audible throughout, nicely separated from the frequently busy mix; the multi-layered sound in the project apartments (with music and activity happening in every room) is particularly solid. Frequent nightclub scenes ensure enough pulsing bass for the LFE channel to get some play, while sound effects (particularly in a key bust scene in the projects) are loud, visceral, and often scary.
The disc also includes English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Bonus features are a little on the slick side, but informative (and bulky) nonetheless. First up is an Audio Commentary by director Antoine Fuqua; it's rather a dry track, but he's a smart guy, and gives a good overview of the film's production. Several EPK-style featurettes follow; they're a little repetitive, but not bad. "Chaos & Conflict: The Life of a New York Cop" (6:49) is a broad look at the making of the film, interviewing the three actors who play the cops, plus director Fuqua and writer Martin. "Boyz N the Real Hood" (5:48) covers the location shooting in Brooklyn--why Fuqua pushed for it, and how they interacted with the locals. "An Eye for Detail: Director Featurette" (6:34) glimpses Fuqua working on the set and talking about his style, with additional testimonials from his actors, while "From the MTA to the WGA: Writer Featurette" (5:16) tells the story of Martin, a tollbooth operator-turned-first-time filmmaker. Next up is "Three Cops and a Dealer: Character Profile" (8:00), which examines the characters and the actors who play them.
There's also an assortment of Deleted Scenes (31:11); most are extended and alternate versions of stuff that made the cut, though there is another very fine two-scene between Cheadle and Snipes. The original Theatrical Trailer (2:32) is also included, as is a Digital Copy disc for viewing on mobile devices.
Brooklyn's Finest isn't always a smooth ride, and sometimes threatens to buckle under the weight of its top-heavy storytelling and overstuffed aspirations (Martin's screenplay isn't quite as complex as Fuqua's ambitious direction wants it to be). But it is indisputably compelling stuff, and at its blunt, brute level, it works on you.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.