O Brothers, Where Art
John Singleton, USA, 2005
Kevin Forest Moreau
Director John Singleton began his career as a promising chronicler of
issues and institutions of interest to young black men and women (Boyz 'N
the Hood, Higher Learning). Lately, he's expanded his scope,
alternating films of topical relevance to his black audience (Baby Boy)
with giant popcorn productions like Shaft and 2 Fast 2 Furious.
Since 1997's ambitious historical drama Rosewood, the pattern seems
to have been to follow an example of the former with one of the latter.
Four Brothers doesn't fall into either camp. Conceived as a kind of
"urban Western," it takes the central premise of the John Wayne/Dean Martin
vehicle The Sons of Katie Elder and deposits it in a modern-day
Detroit so industrially bleak it makes the dead-end milieu of
8 Mile look like Cold Comfort Farm.
That atmosphere also heightens the film's prevalent Saturday-matinee, 1970s
blaxploitation-flick feel. The result is a revenge-minded entertainment
product with a high-expectations cast (Mark Wahlberg, Terrence Howard) and
plenty of testosterone-charged set pieces that ultimately feels as strangely
muted as its washed-out tones and dreary, snow-covered landscapes.
Into that tableau drives ex-con Bobby Mercer (Wahlberg), returning home to
attend the funeral of his adoptive mother (Fionnula Flanagan), who was
killed in what appears to have been a random convenience store holdup. At
the funeral, Bobby hooks up with his three foster brothers: former marine
Angel (Tyrese Gibson), scruffy rocker Jack (Garrett Hedlund) and struggling
businessman Jeremiah (André Benjamin of OutKast). The boys quickly decide to
take matters into their own hands -- except for the relatively
straight-arrow Jeremiah -- and investigate their mother's death themselves.
Having done such a solid job of establishing a natural, street-level look
and feel (thanks to cinematographer Peter Menzies, Jr.), Four Brothers
then lurches, like a fitful Ford Thunderbird, into a B-movie fantasy world.
Bobby's investigative methods consist largely of barging into places
uninvited (a high-school basketball game or a den of low-level street
thugs), brandishing weapons and demanding answers. (For all the talk about
how "Mom" set these troubled boys on the straight-and-narrow, she doesn't
seem to have done too great a job with Bobby.)
In fact, it's the scenes in which Bobby -- with Angel his willing accomplice
and Jack more or less along for the ride -- sets out to get to the bottom of
things that give Four Brothers its most credulity-straining moments.
When the trail leads to a local politician, Bobby's approach is to douse his
car in gasoline and threaten to incinerate him in an effort to solicit
information -- long before it's established that said politician is
in the pocket of the film's resident villain. Earlier, Bobby and his
brothers get into a shootout with an elusive witness inside a large
apartment building, and amazingly, no one else seems to be home --
certainly, no one reacts to all the gunplay or calls the cops, even when
Bobby cuts the rope via which his prey is attempting to rappel to safety,
and ends up writhing in pain on the ground many stories below.
Granted, Singleton has never been a particularly subtle director -- even the
critically lauded Boyz 'N the Hood had its heavy-handed moments --
but Four Brothers is a giant sledgehammer of a movie, loudly banging
its contrived plot elements and characters into place. Angel's sex-crazed
spitfire of a girlfriend (Sofia Vergara) exists only to do stupid things
that place the brothers in unnecessary jeopardy. And the aforementioned
villain, Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor), likes to humiliate his underlings
by making them sit at the kids' table or eat their meals off the floor of
his restaurant like dogs -- he's evil, get it?
There's an argument to be made that analyzing a film like Four Brothers
too closely misses the point. It's a summer action flick, after all, and its
purpose is to entertain. And it does that job fairly well. Still, we never
quite buy that the Mercer brothers can just stroll, consequence-free,
through Detroit, threatening and shooting at people, getting into a visually
arresting nighttime car chase or, in the most "Western" scene, getting shot
at when a platoon of bad guys perforates the Mercer house in an
Eventually the brothers uncover a police conspiracy involving kickbacks and
an insurance settlement, but ultimately Four Brothers isn't about
untangling a mystery so much as it's defined by its over-the-top skirmishes;
the flimsy plot threads are just there to tie them together. There's nothing
necessarily wrong with that, of course, and Four Brothers isn't a
bad movie. But you're never quite able to settle comfortably into the
fantasy it creates. Hopefully Singleton's next project, whatever it may be,
won't have a similar problem.
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