Contrived ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’ cops out
‘Brooklyn’s Finest’’ is a billy-club sandwich: three separate cop dramas piled one on top of the other, separated by layers of dramatic cheese, and compressed until the condiments run together. If that doesn’t sound very appetizing, it isn’t, at least not over the course of an entire meal. But the ingredients are promising, and you can chew on the movie a good hour before you hit gristle.
A stressed NYPD lawman is at the center of each interwoven plot strand, and two out of the three leading actors do their damnedest to draw us in. Sal (Ethan Hawke), a member of Brooklyn’s rough-and-tumble antidrug squad, is a family man in an ever-tightening financial squeeze. When we meet him, he already has one foot over the line and is contemplating full surrender to corruption. Hawke, his features beginning to ravage with age, convinces us of the man’s escalating despair; Sal’s a trapped rat deciding which limb to gnaw off.
One of the drug lords he’s tracking turns out to be a cop deep undercover. Tango (Don Cheadle) has spent so many months building a street rep, in jail and out, that he’s beginning to forget why he’s there. The more his superior officer (Will Patton) refuses to bring him in from the cold, the more Tango despairs that he’ll cave in to his demons, and Cheadle uses those big, bleak eyes of his to toggle between sorrow and rage.
The film’s weak link is Eddie, a loser beat cop - burnt-out, boozy, shunned by his colleagues - who has one week to go before tossing in the towel and retiring. He’s played, in a remarkable feat of miscasting, by Richard Gere. Two decades ago, Gere resuscitated his career as an extremely bad cop in 1990’s “Internal Affairs,’’ and the surprise back then was that no one thought the pretty boy had it in him. This is different: Eddie’s a nebbish, a nobody, and Gere was born to strut. In the scenes where the character shocks rookies with his workaday cynicism, you just don’t feel the bile in his belly.
That’s three main characters in active despair - the movie’s an emotional wake. Yet where individual scenes and dilemmas convince, the whole of “Brooklyn’s Finest’’ feels increasingly cooked up. It comes to us from director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day’’) and writer Michael C. Martin, both of whom seem to be aiming for the outer borough existentialism of a filmmaker like James Gray (“The Yards,’’ “We Own the Night’’), who himself is working from the urban template of Sidney Lumet classics like “Serpico’’ and “Q&A.’’ At this point the toner’s running out of the copier, and “Brooklyn’s Finest’’ turns contrived just when it should be charging ahead to a furious climax.
It’s furious, all right, but diffuse; I’m not giving anything away to say the three story lines ultimately don’t intersect in any meaningful way. The movie was 12 minutes longer and quite a bit darker at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, but the issue was never its downer of an original ending but how it got you there.
A New York cop movie has to earn its grit over the long haul, and despite some enjoyably hammy performances by Ellen Barkin (as a federal prosecutor), Wesley Snipes (ragged but right as Tango’s jailhouse brother), Brian F. O’Byrne (as Sal’s Jiminy Cricket), and Lili Taylor (beatifically wasted as Sal’s wife), “Brooklyn’s Finest’’ feels written rather than observed.
What’s missing is the assurance of tone that a Lumet would provide. Is it supposed to be comic that Sal has an apparently limitless number of children? Is Eddie’s final redemption heroic or ironic? Your guess is as good as mine. Unfortunately, that’s not good enough.