I usually refrain from referencing other reviews in my own, but I happened to catch the Tomatometer reading for Brooklyn’s Finest earlier today, and found myself dreading the prospect of screening the movie after I noticed it was somewhere in the 30s. Having seen the movie now, and not having had the benefit of reading the content of any of those reviews, I’m at something of a loss. As crime dramas go, Brooklyn’s Finest is not exactly Heat, but it is a solid film, intense, well-acted, and as wide releases go in 2010, it’s second to only Shutter Island for the year’s best so far (not that the competition has been exactly fierce).
In fact, replace Denzell Washington’s performance with almost anyone else’s, and Brooklyn’s Finest is a better film than Training Day, even if it does tread much of the same territory. It’s certainly Antoine Fuqua’s best work (again, not that it would take much) and it doesn’t suffer from the sort of Hollywood ending that studio interference would’ve necessitated. I can see why, in fact, it premiered at Sundance last year, and it’s possible that the Tomatometer is weighed down by Sundance reviews, written by festival critics in a different frame of mind, not expecting a dirty-cop drama in the midst of all that whimsiquirkilicious.
Brooklyn’s Finest focuses on three different narratives, each given equal weight in the story. Don Cheadle plays Tango, a cop who has been undercover for years, first in prison, and now on the outside involved with a street-level gang drug operation. He’s been in long enough, in fact, that he’s lost his sense of perspective (as well as his wife). He’s gotten close to Caz (Wesley Snipes), the drug connect who once saved Tango’s life in prison, and now runs the drug operation. That operation also has a couple of alums of “The Wire” in Michael K. Williams (Omar!) and Hasson Johnson (Wee Bey), casting that manages to evoke “The Wire” without actually drawing the unfair comparison (since comparing anything to “The Wire” is unfair). The conflict for Tango comes when Federal Agent Smith (Ellen Barkin, who is responsible for the one truly awful performance in the film) compels Tango to turn on Caz in order to earn a much desired desk job.
Meanwhile, Ethan Hawke plays Sal, a Catholic police officer trying to support a large family on a crappy police officer’s salary. Under the strain of those financial difficulties, Sal falls down the well of corruption and has to balance his shitty behavior with his religious guilt. It’s his story-line that sounds weakest on paper, but Hawke — who is playing a role closer to Denzel’s in Training Day than his own — rises above the otherwise weak storyline and delivers one of the film’s better performances, believably carrying his narrative toward the inevitable.
Elsewhere, Richard Gere plays Eddie, a beat cop nearing his retirement, forced to mentor rookie cops during his final days. His attitude is one of disinterest, and his moral antipathy is compounded by his relationship with a prostitute. Eddie just wants to get through his final days without incident and retire, and after 22 years on the force, has little interest in anything other than his pension, even if it means looking the other way when someone is getting abused outside of his jurisdiction. As far as he’s concerned, that’s someone else’s problem.
The most welcome surprise about Brooklyn’s Finest is that, while the three running story lines brush up against each other, they don’t weave together in an unnecessarily Crash sort of way. After a two-hour, intense slow burn, the last thing you want is for the three cops to gun each other down in a deus ex Mexican standoff while Paul Haggis stands by nodding agreeably.
Indeed, Fuqua doesn’t take the easy out, just the inevitable one. Aided by Michael C. Martin’s almost serviceable script (except for the Hawke storyline), Fuqua ably drives each narrative toward its natural conclusion — there are no twists or curveballs, and even when the melodrama ratchets up near the end, it feels earned. Moreover, unlike even Training Day, Brooklyn’s Finest is not pocked with moralizing speeches, nor does it try to force the notion of “duty” down your throat. The cop clichés abound, of course, but they’re underplayed and not shouted in front of an American flag backdrop.
While I’ll concede that there’s nothing new in Brooklyn’s Finest and that both the form and content are heavy on formula, it’s the character study — and the performances of those characters — that wins out in the end. It’s performance over substance, and in a marketplace dominated by style over substance, Brooklyn’s Finest comes as a welcome relief.