Did The Wire ruin cop movies forever? So many cast members of the former HBO series are scattered throughout Brooklyn's Finest, and so many situations are reminiscent of the show, that the movie is practically a reunion special. Unfortunately, reunion specials tend to suck. And the presence of Omar and Wee-Bey and Sen. Clay Davis (someone yelled out his signature, unprintable line from the show at the screening I attended) does the film no favors, serving as a reminder of how much better and more intricately The Wire depicted the eternal dance between the police and drug dealers.
No two-hour movie, of course, could achieve the same complexity as 60 episodes of a weekly hour-long drama. But Brooklyn's Finest covers the same thematic turf the show did on a more modest scale, focusing on three cops whose lives overlap during one violent night. Actors love playing tortured cops, because the roles are showy and flamboyant and offer an excuse to go deep with the angst and gravitas of trying to remain good men in a rotten world.
Of the three leads, Ethan Hawke fares best playing Sal, a father whose family has outgrown its modest house and whose wife (Lili Taylor) is pregnant with twins. Sal is trying to come up with the money for a down payment on a sweet deal for a new house, but the deadline is approaching, and his salary simply can't cover it.
Hawke has been quietly devoting his career to playing desperate men driven to extreme measures (he played similar roles in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and What Doesn't Kill You), and he's in top-notch form here, making you share in the constant anxiety and frustration of a man torn between providing for his family and upholding the law. In the film's best scene, he delivers a terrific monologue as to why cops should feel free to dip into the stacks of money drug dealers leave lying around before they are confiscated and placed into evidence. Yes, it's highly illegal, but Sal makes a convincing argument.
The other leads - Richard Gere as a veteran seven days away from retirement and Don Cheadle as a narcotics officer who has spent too long undercover and is starting to lose his moral bearings - don't fare nearly so well, because their characters are pure cliche. Gere's troubled loner wakes up in the morning by taking a swig of bourbon, and his only friend in the world is a prostitute. Cheadle feels guilty about having to betray the drug kingpin (a terrific Wesley Snipes) who considers him a brother.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) clearly loves actors: He fills the screen with their faces and holds on them for unusually long takes, letting them do as much with silence as they do with dialogue. Fuqua also pulls off one terrific sequence, exactly at mid-film, in which he cuts back and forth among his leads, all stranded in tense situations. As the suspense mounts to a near-unbearable pitch, Fuqua expertly plays the audience like an orchestra conductor.
The movie is never that good again. Brooklyn's Finest has a biblical sense of justice to go along with all the Christian iconography peppered throughout. But the movie becomes less interesting once you realize that the characters' fates are inextricably linked to their actions - once you know that no bad deed will go unpunished and that, unlike in the real world (or The Wire), sin always carries comeuppance here. By turning Brooklyn's Finest into a morality tale, Fuqua lets the movie slip right through his undeniably talented fingers.
(** out of ****)
Brooklyn's Finest opens in South Florida on Friday, March 5.