Brooklyn’s Finest

The fact is that these cops, in Antoine Fuqua’s latest passion play, a film called Brooklyn’s Finest are not Brooklyn’s Finest. They’re conflicted men, one of whom is trying to get through each day, one day at a time, doing whatever it takes to make it to the next day, and nothing more. Another is trying to get ahead, financially, one drug bust at a time. And the 3rd, an undercover cop, is simply trying to get out, to regain his life, and the sooner the better.

They’re cops working in one of Brooklyn’s most deadly and crime infested precincts, the 65th. The center piece for this story is a housing project that consists of 18 buildings, and 15,000 residents, all of whom are never more than a few yards away from death: be it a bad shooting by the police, or a war being conducted between rival drug gangs, or the violence that can erupt in any corner bodega or convenience store which are no more than tinder boxes where cultures can clash,  serving as veritable staging areas for brutal violence.

Fuqua and first time screenwriter Michael Martin will take us down some familar pathways. We’ve been there before with Serpico, Prince of the City, The French Connection, Q & A, American Gangster, and The Departed. Cops fascinate writers, directors, and the movie going public. Drugs lords and drug wars also tend to be a fodder for Hollywood, or even Bollywood – the film Company comes to mind, although strictly speaking, there was only one cop that had a meaningful role in that film.

So when we enter the theaters, we kind of know what to expect. That means  the story line, the plot, or even the situations are not going to be new, or even presented in a new way. That leaves us with having to talk about the performances of the principals.

Richard Gere as Ptl. Eddie Dugan gets top billing. He’s put in 22 years on the force and as the film opens he’s just 7 days away from retirement. He’s not well liked in his precinct, his record is spotty or average at best, and when talking to a rookie cop who has been assigned to work with him, he sums up a career in the police as

Today a woman gets hit, tomorrow it’s a rape, the day after that it’s a murder. You got 20 years … of days …

Gere performs well enough. The problem with Gere is that he’s miscast as a burned-out cop who has nightmares, wakes up needing a shot of whiskey before he even exits his bed, and is suicidal. He just doesn’t look the part. What works best for Gere is his looks. And that works against him here. Even at 61 years of age in real life, he still looks like he’s in his mid-late 40’s or early 50’s.  He hasn’t got a paunch, or a beer belly. His hair is too nicely cut. He’s just too pretty for a burn-out.

Don Cheadle is the undercover cop called Tango on the street, but is Clarence Butler to his Commanding Officer played by a smarmy Will Patton. Tango has been under for a long time, he’s even done a stretch in prison. His wife is divorcing him – he wants out. He’s asked for a promotion and a desk job. He wants his life back.

He’s great in his role. You can feel his urgency, his anguish, his need to become whole – and to live his life on just one side of the law. Whether it is his looks, his size, his smoothness as an actor, or his chamelon-ness that enables him to be believable as a cop, or moments later, as a tough thug speaking the patois of those mean streets, he makes you care.

Ethan Hawke is doing his second turn with Director Fuqua. His first was in Training Day (2001), and that role garned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Here he is a Detective working Narcotics. He faces death on a daily basis doing his job. He also sees mountains of money when he makes drug busts. He needs money. He with his wife, played by Lili Taylor, have produced a passel of kids. As the movie begins we learn that he’s already crossed the line between right and wrong, his wife is expecting twins, and he needs a new home as where he lives now is too small for his ever burgeoning family plus the house is filled with mold which has made his wife sick.

So Hawke as Sal does what he does to take care of his family. Though his character is not particularly likable, at least we understand his motivation.  He’s very good in this film as his face and his body language convey his desperateness even better than what his words tell us. More than likely he is the most conflicted character in the story. After doing a very bad thing in a drug bust, we later find him in a confessional talking to his parish priest. When the priest says, God is ready to forgive you, Sal says –

I don’t want his forgiveness, I want his help.

So the film sets up these three characters. We know their story arcs will bring them together at some point and when it happens it is brutal. Actually, brutal is not a strong enough word. That’s Fuqua’s forte – violence in films.

Supporting these three we have some terrific performances. One by Wesley Snipes as Caz, the drug lord who has just been released from prison. It’s been almost 20 years since Snipes did a turn in New Jack City (1991) as Nino Brown the charismatic head of a drug syndicate. Snipes is now older, wiser, and past his tax troubles (almost) yet still credible in his role here.

Ellen Barkin plays an over the top bureau chief, who wants to squeeze one more bust out of Cheadle’s Tango. She’s not going to take no for an answer, and there’s no dirty trick she won’t play. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but she snarls her way through both of her scenes. She is immediately and instantly identifiable as a character you’ll hate on the spot.

The one good cop in the whole film is Sal’s partner Ronnie, played by Brian F. O’Byrne. But even he can’t do everything right. But we like him nonetheless. And kudos must go to Shannon Kane as the prostitute Chantal, who seemingly is the only thing or person on the planet that Gere’s Dugan cares about.

Fuqua’s cinematic canvas portrays the dangerous times of being a cop in Brooklyn. He entertains, and he holds your interest but the production doesn’t resonate with uniqueness, or directorial brilliance. He’s very good at action, and he’s done a very good job with Martin’s script. And there’s your weak-point in the film. Martin hasn’t given us anyone to really respect or root for. The cops have the faces of the recognizable actors, but they’re also recognizable as stock characters. As are the situations. It seems that the action ties the film together rather than the dialogue or the plot line.

When we left the theater, my buddy called it a lousy film. I didn’t agree with that. However the film is unrelenting in its bleakness, and it is depressing to know that while these people maybe fictional characters, the reality isn’t that far away from Martin’s concept. The picture is also visually dark – night scenes, dark noisy bar scenes and even the daylight street scenes are darkened by the elevated train tracks which filter the sunlight. When the blood flows, it isn’t red, its just dark.

Which may match your mood when you leave the theater. Why – because with the high body count in the film, you’re going to feel a tad beat-up and not all that eager to discuss the film.  For us it wasn’t 20 years of days as Dugan said, instead it was just a rough and tough 133 minutes.