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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Before the screening of John Singleton's Four Brothers last week, my friend Garth and I were talking about Singleton's career. Many critics have bemoaned the direction he's taken since his spectacular debut Boyz 'N the Hood, wondering why he would waste his talents on a Shaft remake or the empty action thriller 2 Fast 2 Furious. Garth had to reluctantly agree, "He's kind of hit or miss." "Often in the same film," I replied.
Singleton's latest stars Mark Wahlberg (I Heart Huckabees, Tyrese Gibson (Baby Boy), Andre Benjamin (of the hip hop group OutKast), and Garrett Hedlund (Troy) star as four brothers who return home to Detroit for the funeral of their mother. Now if you know those actors, your first thought will assuredly be, "Hey, two of those guys are white and two are black. How can they be brothers?" Well, it turns out that their mother was a living saint who took in and helped place dozens of foster kids over the years. And when she couldn't place the toughest kids, she adopted them. Four of them.
The film's opening thirty minutes are surprisingly enjoyable. The exposition is a bit clunky in places (we're subjected to the regrettable technique of having each brother imagine his dead mother at the dinner table), but the camaraderie among the brothers rings true. Tyrese has shown his comic abilities in earlier Singleton films, so it's no surprise that he can crack up an audience, but Wahlberg is just as funny. And Singleton, working from a script by David Elliot and Paul Lovett, takes his time, establishing a comfortable rhythm.
The movie knows better than to pretend that all four brothers ended up being the next Senator Obama. Benjamin's character, Jeremiah, has settled down with a wife, two daughters, and a real estate business. But Bobby (Wahlberg) has been in and out of jail, and Angel (Gibson) isn't much better despite a stint in the army. So when the brothers find out their mother was murdered execution style, their immediate thought is to bypass the cops, track down the killers, and exact their own brand of justice.
This is where the misses start to outnumber the hits. Maybe repenting of his patience in the first act, Singleton immediately shifts into overdrive. It takes the brothers only a few minutes to track down one witness, move onto another, and then chase the killers down a dark road in a snowstorm. Who knew crime solving was so easy? I also realized that I don't think I've ever seen a big chase scene in snow before. And now I know why. It's a difficult thing to pull off--making the slipperiness of the road seem genuine while still allowing the cars to maneuver in exciting ways. Unfortunately, it also scores very, very low on the believability index--Palmeiro-denying-he-knew-anything-about-those-steroids low.
Then the movie, figuring that you've either turned off your brain or walked out already, moves into bizarre-o world. It turns out that the two guys the brothers rubbed out were merely contract killers, so now our "heroes" have to find out who hired the hit. No problem that breaking into a couple houses won't solve. And when an owner actually comes home to find them going through his stuff, they interrogate him, find his story immediately believable (why? because's old and white, apparently), and humbly apologize on their way out the door. The owner's response? He wishes these fine young men good luck.
Covering up for these howlers is a tough task, so the film turns to its utterly despicable villain Victor Sweet (played with panache by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things). Sweet isn't just a bad man who sells drugs to afford his lavish lifestyle. No, he's a bad man who sells drugs AND treats his friends badly. He makes them eat off the floor like dogs. He openly talks of sleeping with their wives. He even dresses in fur coats. Would someone please alert PETA? Oh wait, our brothers are on the case.
Confronting Victor Sweet isn't a wise lifestyle decision, though. Soon, the brothers' house is being visited by five men in masks who aren't there to sell vacuum cleaners if you know what I mean. A spectacularly loud and long gunfight ensues, and in the process the fourth brother Jack takes a bullet. I realize I'm giving away a plot point, but it's for your own good. Jack is so out of place in this movie (both in acting ability and charisma) that I was genuinely happy to see him exit stage right. So if you happen to be watching Four Brothers on Cinemax one night and are wondering when this pasty white boy is going to get off the screen, I promise you it'll be soon.
But why should you be watching Four Brothers in the first place? Besides, the enjoyable camaraderie of the brothers, you also get a few laughs, another strong supporting performance from Terrence Howard, and the chance to see black people play hockey. Yeah, I know--that's not worth $9 to you. Me neither. The audience I was with, though, seemed to enjoy the film more than I did. They bought into the revenge drama and cheered lustily whenever Sweet or a crooked cop took it on the chin. I just kept counting the misses and wondering when Singleton's hits will return.
J. Robert Parks 8/15/2005