Ten minutes into Four Brothers the thought crossed my mind that John Singleton, a filmmaker who once had a social conscience, seems to have become what most Tinsel Town directors are, a gun-for-hire.
The urban setting of Four Brothers is laced with violence and called for someone who could efficiently handle such terrain. Rushed into production and into the theatres, it was a Hollywood project where being black works for you rather than against. I suppose the fact that the setting takes place in my hometown is apropos and a bit amusing. Seems Hollywood can’t get enough of the D now, thanks to Marshall Mathers (8 Mile).
Seeing my hometown represented on the silver screen is at times a bitter pill to swallow. Either a film is supposed to be some other place (it was a stand-in for LA in The Island, and 61*), or only has a minute amount of footage actually shot in Detroit instead of being shot in Toronto (as in Four Brothers), filling in like so many other times before (Detroit Rock City, Narc, Assault on Precinct 13, etc.). Out of Sight, with its active, multi-state plotline, did a tremendous job with its few authentic scenes set in Detroit. Zebrahead and True Romance are appropriately gritty and memorable Detroit screen images I’ll always cherish. Other films have included this blue collar, working class city (Hoffa, Detroit 9000, Beverly Hills Cop, Evil Dead, Blue Collar, etc.) that since the riots of 1967, seems to be a constant pupil in the school of hard knocks. Of course the monikers Motown and Motor City are always close by for recall.
With Four Brothers, a loose take on Henry Hathaway's The Sons of Katie Elder(1965), you get a motley bunch of racially mixed brothers whose lives seem to be living proof of Tupac’s call out for living the “thug life”. Luckily, their adoptive mom, Evelyn Mercer (sympathetically white haired, Fionnula Flanagan) a tough Irish broad with a heart of gold, dispensed enough common sense and plenty of tough love. The story centers around the reunion of the four brothers attending the funeral of their mom. In a lamely executed, but still emotionally evocative opening scene, Evelyn is caught up in a liquor store (or “party store” as we call them in Detroit) stick-up gone awry.
In the course of the relentless investigation, basically a whodunit murder mystery where answers must be cracked, a bloodbath war erupts on the city blocks. As the layers unfold, the mystery thickens. Dirty politicians are mixed in with the city’s crime kingpin. You know the drill, though the political corruption and crime lords connection here seems more a plot necessity than authentic moral duty. At least the heroes are not far from the same side of the tracks as the kingpin. They are anti-heroes to the core. I like films where anti-heroes are the protagonists.
As separate parts, things don’t add up. But by the film’s final violence-splashed sequences, the whole engine enmeshes you in a vigilante-style vengeance story. It would be a conventional thriller, sans the brother angle. It shouldn’t work, but by some remarkable osmotic synergy, it does.
Casting is the paramount reason the film’s winning moxie works. Much has to due with the rough shod, former Boston bad boy Mark Wahlberg channeling his anger fueled youth to perfect effect. Here, Wahlberg seems comfortable and convincing in this urban environment, leaving no questions as to who the pugnacious, bombastic Bobby Mercer is. He is the best developed of the paper thin characters. Few white actors could carry such believability as effortlessly as Wahlberg.
Part of what is likeable is that during the course of the hook or crook investigation, the development of Jeremiah Mercer (Andre Benjamin, Outkast rapper Andre 3000), adds flavour. There’s also a street thug naturalism in Tyrese Gibson’s performance as Angel Mercer, solidifying the R&B singer as a qualified actor whose performance is very akin to his work in Singleton’s Baby Boy and Fast and Furious 2.
Like most films, it’s only as good as its villain. There’s a subtly oppressive performance by the snake-like Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an old memory from the brothers‘ challenging childhood and rough neighborhood. I could barely recognize the meek concierge Okwe from Dirty Pretty Things. In a stirring and absolutely sublime performance that steals the show, Ejifor shows his chameleon-esque acting abilities with aplomb. Sweet is the type of thug who fits the spot on psychological profile of a tough kid turned psychopath with no moral center and Ejifor is street real enough to carry the performance to surprisingly grand heights.
Halfway through, as the mystery unfolds with enough twists and turns to test a race car driver, the characters finally begin to feel more likeable while the story becomes a bit more humor filled, more intricate, puzzling, and finally, enlightening as to the who and why. One last nemesis in the boys’ side and the investigation is the hard-to-read cop team tracking their every move, Detective Fowler (Josh Charles) and Lt. Green (Terrence Dashon Howard). Lt Green being another link to the boys’ past.
Regardless, at its heart Four Brothers is nothing more than eye candy with a cherry on top. And like the soon to be released Red Eye, after an entrée of cinema’s ultra light summer fare, Four Brothers serves as the dessert of guilty pleasures. With the talent assembled both in front of and behind the camera (e.g., Peter Menzies, ACS) you might expect, and even deserve, a more originally developed, deeper delved project then this all too familiar escape fare. I fully expect mainstream audiences to eat the film up with the enthusiasm of a drag racer on a straightway, especially African American audiences, judging by the crowded theater and the positive reactions during the screening.
The film is full of prime examples of summa cum laudes from the School of Hard Knocks. Essentially, Singleton does not besmirch his name with this easy to swallow revenge thriller, but from the best, you come to expect the best, and this is not quite it.
© Julian Boyance, completed on August 8, 2005
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