It was supposed to be a return to form. Training Day director Antoine Fuqua took a new police potboiler, Brooklyn's Finest, to the 2009 Sundance Film Festival after a series of increasingly bizarre forays into various other battle-tested genres (Tears of the Sun, King Arthur, Shooter). Brooklyn's Finest was quickly snapped up by a distributor in one of the festival's biggest sales, but then came a round of recuts (including a new ending) and an unanticipated distributor change. When Brooklyn's Finest finally reached stateside theaters in March, it seemed already out of date, a warmed-over procedural from last decade. Needless to say, it didn't generate much positive word-of-mouth.
Fuqua's latest debuted on DVD and Blu-ray last week, and it still won't show you much you haven't seen before. It's an altogether familiar combination of swooping aerial views, moody street-level shots of patrol-car lights reflecting off wet pavement, drug-raid carnage, and overblown off-duty dilemmas. But it's also a good deal more involving than any of the self-consciously gritty cop movies that sprang up in the wake of Training Day (2001) (with the possible exception of Jean-François Richet's tense Assault on Precinct 13 remake (2005)).
Brooklyn's Finest takes place in a Brownsville, Brooklyn, housing project overrun with drug-gang initiates. First-timer Michael C. Martin's screenplay follows three separate story lines. Eddie (Richard Gere), a seven-days-from-retirement burnout whose alarming morning routine involves an eye-opener and a variation on Russian roulette, is tasked with acclimating rookies to the 65th Precinct, an assignment he's none too happy to accept. The wiry, short-fused Sal (Ethan Hawke) is struggling to come up with the money to buy a bigger house for his pregnant wife, Angela (Lili Taylor), whose health is threatened by the wood mold in their current home. Don Cheadle plays Tango, an undercover cop saddled with the kind of in-too-deep crisis of conscience that undercover cops in movies tend to have.
These stories eventually come together, just as they seem fated to, though this convergence thankfully has more to do with basic spatial proximity than universal truths of the Babel variety. If there is little innovation in the film's structure or the dynamics of its puffed-up drama, Brooklyn's Finest does have an unusually vivid sense of place, thanks largely to some evocative under-the-elevated-subway-tracks location shooting by cinematographer Patrick Murguia. Martin also has a very good ear for more casual dialogue. The scenes between Tango and Caz (Wesley Snipes), a career criminal just recently released from prison, are particularly terrific; the old friends' first encounter in the film is a playacted barroom confrontation, giving their subsequent rooftop exchanges an appropriately uneasy undertone.
Of course, Brooklyn's Finest has its unpardonable excesses, such as the extent of Sal's compulsion for skimming drug money—perhaps never again will we see a character go to such pathological extremes to meet a single down payment, or privately field so many clock-is-ticking calls from a real estate broker who remains entirely off-screen. Eddie's falling in love with a kindhearted hooker, played by Shannon Kane—and his later sloughing off of his crippling depression to enter selfless Man of Action mode—is also patently ridiculous.
So Brooklyn's Finest is a qualified recommendation. But in its focus on cops in very different stages of their lives and careers, the film is much more appealingly expansive than Training Day, which overcame post-9/11 queasiness about its corrupt-cop subject matter probably on account of its familiar horror-movie trajectory: a descent into hell courtesy of one really bad apple.
Brooklyn's Finest is more carefully attuned to everyday drudgery than Fuqua's earlier film. I would even argue, pace The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, that the wood mold so central to the Ethan Hawke plotline is an audaciously mundane detail (rather than an indicator of a movie rotting from the inside). Administrative business is not overlooked either; here, officers glean important information from a precinct bulletin board after morning roll call.
This is not to suggest that Brooklyn's Finest offers some sort of institutional epic worthy of the great American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, but Martin and Fuqua do succeed in conveying a sense of the organizational complexity of the NYPD, or their version of it. It may not be the freshest possible take on life in the force, but the impressively panoramic and ably performed Brooklyn's Finest acquits itself nicely.