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Director Antoine Fuqua has built a career on mediocrity, hitting a few cinematic highlights ("Training Day"), but mostly sticking to the comfort of generic thrillers devoid of sensational feats of filmmaking. As imperfect as it is, "Brooklyn's Finest" is perhaps the closest Fuqua will ever come to true greatness, revealing a deft command of nerve-racking criminal moods and multi-character tragedy, showing something approaching range while working out a screenplay soaked in oily despair. Missteps abound, but "Brooklyn's Finest," when firing on all brooding cityscape cylinders, is a convincing, commanding motion picture.
For three New York City police officers, the job, and life itself, has reached a point of no return. Eddie (Richard Gere, blinky but gnarled) is seven days from retirement, left to contemplate an empty existence where suicide is a daily consideration, and his only emotional outlet is a well-rehearsed prostitute. Tango (Don Cheadle) is an undercover cop posing as a drug lord, watching his criminal compatriot (Wesley Snipes, in a restrained return to form) return to power after a lengthy prison stretch. Frustrated with his stint as a thug, Tango is forced to choose between his sense of honor and his job as his superiors (Will Patton and a fanged Ellen Barkin) force him to turn on his drug family. Sal (Ethan Hawke) is a family man and a practicing Catholic facing a pregnant wife (Lili Taylor) at home suffering from mold poisoning. Attempting to steal drug money to purchase a new dwelling, Sal is pushed to his limits as his police duty stands in the way of his domestic dreams.
The screenplay by Michael C. Martin is not a hotly original piece of writing, firmly shadowing well-worn cop film formula. What it lacks in innovation it makes up for in bloody knuckles and intensity, submitting three men at the end of their rope, trapped behind badges while their situations spin violently out of control. It's that thin line of honor that serves as the razor's edge for "Brooklyn's Finest," slicing into these characters as they weave around the limits of the law.
It's a hotheaded screenplay that proficiently intertwines storylines of diverse emotional baggage, bound together by the superficial demands of the job. These are tired men who've seen their share of misconduct, hoping for any sort of exit to sprint away from their professional obligation, which, for Tango and Eddie, has become a prison -- a Stockholm syndrome bind that keeps them professionally comforted enough to remain in the muck. Sal is a different story, as he launches himself into a state of hysteria to give his family the life they deserve after his career and his God have failed him. He's a man who's come to the realization that he should take what he needs from the parasites he's arresting, freeing him from any sense of wrongdoing.
Again, "Brooklyn's Finest" won't win any awards for originality, it's better appreciated for its in-the-moment attitude and intense introspection. Fuqua guides the film steadily, splashing stomach acid around the frame as fortunes sour and brutal mistakes are made. The director is calling upon the police/gangster drama gods (Scorsese, Lumet, Friedkin) on this one, though the tone is more operatic than gritty, which Fuqua pulls off with style and suspense. The film rolls along as a fiery mood piece, not exactly throwing dramatic bolts, and those who can tune their antennae into the teeth-grinding, shifting-allegiance ambiance of the film are rewarded with a harsh, gripping depiction of moral decay, bolstered by three leading performances that hit the proper buttons of hopelessness and keep the movie flowing along.
The anamorphic widescreen presentation (2.40:1 aspect ratio) holds the streetwise mood with a nice representation of NYC iconography and the city's desperate faces, allowing for some detail to come through, while colors appear intact, though hardly pushed. The film has a more washed-out look, with attention to neon and ambient lighting, making the viewing experience more subdued, but evocative. However, one scene of intimacy is blown out with red lighting, opening the transfer to severe contrast problem. Skintones are natural and flush, while black levels are worked intensely, supporting the film through extended evening sequences.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix is a punchy affair, with a terrific boost on gunshots, making flashes of violence feel alive and suspenseful. Dialogue exchanges are clean, despite loud environments and actorly competition. Scoring is modest, but useful, providing the film with a certain depth, helping atmospherics out, which fill the surrounds. Directionals are limited, but a few moments stand out. Soundtrack cuts are a bit tinny, but forceful.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with director Antoine Fuqua swerves back and forth between useful, meaningful, thoughtful and crude play-by-play. Fuqua didn't prepare, but he attempts to chisel a track out of his hesitation, wandering through the film, imparting a sense of accomplishment with the picture, which was founded on heavy police procedure research. It's an engrossing conversation only when the filmmaker delves into his artistic choices, which involve heavy religious overtones and psychological investigation. When talk turns to motivation, Fuqua merely underlines the obvious, which grows insufferable in a hurry.
"Chaos & Conflict: The Life of a New York Cop" (6:50) interviews cast and crew, who walk through character motivation and on-set vibes, intercut with film clips and some B-roll footage. Nothing revelatory, purely promotional, and a few spoilers are sprinkled over the whole endeavor.
"Boyz N the Real Hood" (5:46) takes the action to the projects of Brooklyn, as the production immersed itself in the details of the area. Interviews with neighbors and extras discuss the attempt at realism, soon focusing on Fuqua's own experiences with hard neighborhoods, prompting the creation of the Fuqua Film Movement.
"An Eye for Detail" (6:34) spotlights Fuqua and his command of the set, covering his dedication to the film, which was shot over 41 days in difficult, heavily traversed locations. Platitudes a plenty in this featurette, but the love is felt through cast and crew interviews, along with a presentation of some decent BTS footage.
"From the MTA to the WGA" (5:17) covers the story of writer Michael C. Martin, who went from a tollbooth job to scripting a major motion picture. It's a tale of adversity, skill, and luck, convincingly conveyed through excited interviews.
"Deleted Scenes" (31:17) supply a larger portrait of the "Brooklyn's Finest" world, with a few extended sequences that develop an alternate hold of tension, a terrific crack dealing montage (with Pac-Man metaphor), some needed financial revelations with Sal's story, and a few alternate endings, including one of shocking finality.
A Theatrical Trailer is included.
"Brooklyn's Finest" doesn't form a sharp dramatic point, summoning a violent lava flow of fate to pass for a grand finale, which encourages a superb series of crisscrossing suspense set-pieces that take the men into the fluorescent bowels of an intimidating criminal community. The picture isn't perfect, but Fuqua shows newfound control and maturity as he quests to make his mark on an overworked genre, keeping the film gripping and anguished long enough to make a substantial impression.