Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 16, 2005 3:03 pm 
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Male bonding

Anybody who goes to American movies knows if you enter a convenience store somebody's going to get shot. Four Brothers begins with a lovable old lady called Evelyn Mercer (Fionulla Flanagan) meeting that fate. Well, it turns out sweet little Evelyn was foster mom for four tough guys who were so mean as kids she was the only person willing to take them on. They may be less than model citizens now, but they'd probably not even be alive if it hadn't been for Evelyn Mercer. So when the Mercer boys -- Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) and young Jack (Garrett Hedlund), who're white, and Angel (Tyrese Gibson) and Jeremiah (André Benjamin) who're black -- all come back together for the funeral and get hints that Evelyn was deliberately assassinated and not just caught in the crossfire, they go into action. When one of the brothers may have had involvement in the hit, the plot and the emotions get more complicated.

Once again as in James Gray's richly atmospheric and brooding and admittedly far superior 2000 movie The Yards, Mark Wahlberg stars in a story about a doomed gangsterish family whose sins he tries to unearth and cleanse. The special charm of the male bonding is in the multi-racial brotherhood, which Singleton and the actors manage to inject a lot of warmth into. These guys are soulful, whether black or white. Not only is the sound track rich in Motown classics, but the brothers cry a lot.

There are conscious allusions to Mystic River with its deep bonds, buried traumas, childhood street hockey games, and clapboard houses -- though this is Detroit, not Massachusetts. The sense of place, in fact, may waver; but the memories and loyalty don't. It's Thanksgiving, and the men stay at the old house, where the memories start the tears flowing. A turkey is baked and drinks are poured but the brothers aren't hungry. Bobby gets them to go out and play hockey.

Next day a little investigation brings on the suspicions of a contract hit against their foster mom. Though Jeremiah objects, Bobby remains in charge. Jerry's relative respectability does not convey any influence in this family; his hesitancy about revenge already makes him seem disloyal. Right away at least three, and sometimes four, of the Mercer boys are in full attack mode and before you can say "assault weapon," the screen is littered with the bodies of cheap gangsters, crooked cops, and gangster politicos. "Hell, this is Detroit," somebody insists. Heads are smashed and weapons multiply, falling into the brothers' hands by the trunk load. Two detectives are watching all this -- one of them played by Terrence Howard, who's so great in Hustle and Flow -- and as in another better movie, Joe Carnahan's 2002 Narc, an element of corruption and betrayal comes in from that angle as well.

Jeremiah claimed his reluctance to participate had moral and filial grounds: he said blood revenge was the last thing Evelyn would have wanted her death to bring about. But you wouldn't have been reading the movie very well if you thought he was the one we must listen to. Before long rumors link him with some insurance and a payoff that put his loyalty in doubt. But is he really a rotten apple, or just a bad businessmen? Suspicion falls inside and outside the family. Don't worry, if you're going to see Four Brothers, reading this review won't spoil it for you. I'm not going to tell you what the movie's secrets are. Hell, they were so twisted, I'm not sure I really understood them anyway. But this is an urban thriller, or if you like a ghetto western, and the procedural details aren't what it's about. It's about emotion, it's about action, it's about getting the bad guys. And the worst bad guy gets his comeuppance starkly and satisfyingly out on a sheet of ice. It's a nice detail that his gangster crew revolt because trade union experience makes them realize he's an abusive employer. Of course he's worse than that. He's a sadistic creep.

The critics are right: this isn't a great movie. At moments it's not even a very good one. The chief villain's a little too villainous. The Nigerian-descent English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (of Stephen Frears's 2002 Dirty Pretty Things), who plays him, is out of his element (maybe he took the role for a change of pace). The plot's too tangled. The cops are too complicit, even for Detroit.

Still, there's something that's underlyingly okay about Four Brothers. Singleton is returning to the roots of his filmmaking, the ghetto and its destructive effects on young black men, which he memorably depicted in his 1991 Boyz in the Hood. Mark Wahlberg's presence here feels right. Everybody's having a good time, which is something that should happen more often. There's nothing wrong with a dose of warm interracial male bonding, with tears and shootouts, every now and again. It can get you through a slow day. Unlike Cinderella Man's, this movies' snow looks pretty real. So do the women's ample cleavage. The movie's action is not convincing, but the atmosphere and people often are. There are a hell of a lot of weapons and gunshots in this movie, and a house gets turned into Swiss cheese like in the shootouts in L.A. Confidential and Mr. and Mrs. Smith: Four Brothers is as lurid as the first and as fantastic as the second; but it still hurts when one of the brothers is lost, even if he goes with a sweet smile on his face.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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