Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Three And Out

Brooklyn's Finest [***1/2]

Brooklyn's Finest tells three different stories involving a police officer at a cross roads: First, we have Sal (Ethan Hawke) a morally compromised cop who may or may not have been a bad guy before his wife's sickness and ever expanding family caused the sudden need to move to a bigger place. A need that can only be met with cold, hard (and ultimately dirty) cash. Next is Doogan (Richard Gere), a hair's breadth away from retirement who wakes every morning and puts an unloaded gun in his mouth and squeezes the trigger. Doogan is reluctantly assigned as a training officer his final week on the job and we see that his style of policing (for the most part) matches his one foot out the door approach to life. Finally, we have Tango (Don Cheadle) an undercover detective working as a drug kingpin in a particularly violent Brooklyn apartment complex. He's close to getting the desk job that he always wanted, but his last assignment requires betraying his only real friend in the life, Casanova Philips (Wesley Snipes), who saved his life during his job related stint in prison. The three stories never really connect on a deeper level, characters cameo in each other's stories in mostly superficial ways, but they all end up in the same crime ridden apartment complex on a fateful night and pretty much remain strangers.

Director Antoine Fuqua is no stranger to stories of police corruption, he and Hawke navigated similar terrain in 2001's Training Day, where Hawke's character only dabbled in ways of villainy. Here Hawke is a full-on bad guy with a badge, not necessarily a bad man in general, but in close proximity to drug money he is the worst morally compromised sort. He's got a pregnant, sick wife, the doctor keeps telling him to move out of his mold infested house and just when you think you've met his entire brood there comes another child. Six including the twins his wife is carrying. No wonder Sal is seen in a church not asking for forgiveness, but chastising God for his dire straits and asking for help. If your God won't let you have birth control maybe he owes it to you to help get a bigger house.

Ethan Hawke is always good at playing The Guy with a Choice, sometimes like in Daybreakers there's a clear right way to go and there's no moralizing to it while in other film's he's just a born criminal (Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, What Doesn't Kill You), but Brooklyn's Finest gives Hawke the fertile middle ground that allows him to justifiably seethe with righteous anger and kick himself for saving a friend instead of taking the money and running.

I've always liked the films of Antoine Fuqua they're swift and entertaining and occasionally they deliver larger than life characters, but until this film there hasn't actually been a legitimately great dramatic moment in any of his previous works. Gere's Doogan lives a burnout's life. Other younger cops harass him and call him a coward, his only friends are apparently fish and the prostitute he visits on a weekly basis. Doogan's proposition to the prostitute to run away with him (wherein he serenades her with "Sea of Love") is a sweet emotionally naked moment for Doogan and it really backfires on him. Or does it? He makes the proposal to her because she buys him a watch as a retirement present, she rejects him and it's sad. Maybe he even contemplates killing himself, but he bought his fishing gear already. He knows he's a born loner, but maybe he needs to see if he has a chance of retiring with someone at his side. So he tried it, and the thought of suicide that he entertains every morning, is faux suicide. Doogan's way of saying, it could be worse, now let's get going. It's like having back pain and taking twelve Aleve in the morning just to get up. You're old, you're broken but you're not dead.

Until this third viewing I never realized that Doogan could just be being overdramatic at being a man defeated by life. He's done with the job, sure, but his last week is also threatening to get pretty interesting and he doesn't want that either. He's so uninterested in accolades or work that he refuses to fabricate a story that could save a rookie's career and earn him a citation, but more importantly he's ready to go home.

It's nice to see, if also brutal and horrifying, that before he can walk into the sunset Doogan has to go renegade to save a missing girl. The sense of purpose infused within Doogan in the film's final moments is a lot like reading George Pelecanos' novel "The Night Gardener" without the bitter irony of what happened to the ex-cop in that book. In general, I think Brooklyn's Finest is capable of doling out humanity and irony and valiant violence in a way that is evocative of Pelecanos.

Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawke's stories come the closest to fully intersecting, but the character played by Cheadle is never mentioned by Hawke even though it is his lackeys that Hawke and other cops are constantly busting and/or murdering. Cheadle's character struggles with the idea of whether or not to descend fully into his street persona and he confides this much in his boss (Will Patton), but what keeps him from doing exactly that is his loyalty to Philips' moreso than the job. He doesn't have anything to prove to fellow gangster Red (Michael K. Williams) by not wanting to beat a snitch to death, but any indulgence of his undercover persona makes Philip's harder to help out and it's Tango's desire to have it both ways that fuels the story. I like the chemistry between Cheadle and Snipes, a roof top scene between the two is similarly evocative of the final scene between Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale. Men on top of an empire, the betrayal of one, by another, inevitable. You get a sense of their history in the way they interact with each other and talk about their hopes and dreams and even plan a final score. Had it gone that far, the scene of confession between Cheadle and Snipes probably would've been heartbreaking.

What the film does give us, introspection from another action stalwart of a bygone era, is pretty good stuff. This might be the last time a movie allows Wesley Snipes to be this good. I'd like to be wrong, though. Cheadle is really good, too, wielding the righteous anger and calling Ellen Barkin a dude. The situation is tense and the choice yet another unenviable one. Somehow this feels like the weakest section of the film, maybe because it traffics too much in familiarity from a pop culture standpoint with vets from TVs The Wire and Brotherhood but also countless other films. It's tough to say, after all, the Gere segment did elicit a Pelecanos' comparison. Maybe, and probably, it's as simple as "I can't betray him he's my friend" isn't as compelling as "I will buy my family's new house with your blood" and "all I'm trying to do is live my life unnoticed and I can't" are much more compelling dilemmas to be faced with.

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