Four Brothers

John Singleton loves action flicks. He championed the urban street film and introduced the movie world to Ice Cube (good or bad thing...jury’s still out) with Boyz n the Hood. He brazenly resurrected Shaft from his television retirement home and added a new level of soul to the concept of cinema action hero. Craziest of all, he power-housed a street racing sequel that should never have been made when he unleashed 2 Fast 2 Furious on the unsuspecting public. The guy likes action, and he manages to make it a family affair with his latest entry, Four Brothers.

Evelyn Mercer, a foster parent and mother to four troubled boys, has been brutally gunned down in a convenience store robbery. Her adopted sons, now grown men, return home to bury their beloved mother and more importantly, take out the sons of guns that murdered her.

It’s a simple plot with plenty of opportunity to wreak havoc, and that’s just what Singleton does. The four boys launch into a mission of righteous vengeance which quickly turns into a weird blend of “Law and Order” and “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City”. Not giving the police one ounce of credit, the sons conduct their own style investigation, rooted heavily in the violent tactics they learned before being taken in by their sweet mother. Naturally, the boys are always a step ahead of the cops and uncover a much deeper conspiracy than they ever expected. In an odd way, I’m reminded of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, only Splinter is a kindly old lady who has been killed instead of kidnapped.

The highlight of the film is watching the brothers interact. All four boys bear the scars of their troubled, pre-adoption lifestyles but their edges are softened, touched forever by the love of a woman who saw more than just street gang thugs. Skin color ignored, the four are bound tightly together and fight like brothers, whether with each other or against anyone who stands in their way.

Mark Wahlberg, playing the oldest son Bobby, has come a long way from his rougher days as Marky Mark, but he slips right back into it, portraying the life of the man he himself might have become if he hadn’t cleaned up his act as a kid. Musicians-turned-actors Andre Benjamin and Tyrese Gibson (both of whom wisely dropped their music monikers for the film’s credits) are surprisingly strong in their roles as the middle sons, good boy Jeremiah and bad boy Angel. The shoes of “pretty boy” Jack, youngest of the sons and the only one still living at home with mom, are filled by Garrett Hedlund who got his start last year playing Patroclus to Brad Pitt’s Achilles in Troy. As Jack he once again plays the role of testy apprentice, but it’s a role he manages convincingly.

The supporting cast are enjoyable as well. Fionnula Flanagan makes smart use of her limited screen time as Ma Mercer. She manages to show off pieces of what makes her character the kind of woman who could reign in such a tough group of guys. Terrence Howard makes a good showing as well despite the fact that he’s becoming an all too familiar face. He’s well on his way to becoming the Jude Law of 2005 with four films out already this year and at least two more on the way. The four lead actors create a formidable quartet on screen and the rest lend a perfect backdrop.

Looking at the movie’s premise, two white boys and two black boys raised as brothers, one can’t help but anticipate some kind of preachy, saccharin, anti-racism message. I was pleasantly surprised to find the exact opposite. The film shamelessly plays to a few racial generalizations, but it’s done honestly and even the stereotype characters are given enough dimension to make them real. Any morals about race are woven silently into the subtext, leaving the audience to take them on their own terms and enjoy the action instead. Too bad this amazing feat is accomplished in a movie destined for mediocrity.

The script does its best to create dramatic tension, but the result is a series of weak plot twists that are given away too soon and followed up by predictable fallout and fractured explanation. Four Brothers never truly reaches a climax. Instead the film offers a series of mini crescendos and resolutions that don’t really build on each other, leaving the ending a bit flat and unsatisfying.

Despite a slightly meandering pace and lackluster plot twists, the story’s not bad for a couple of relative newbie screenplay writers. They certainly did their homework. Setting their film in Detroit, ranked one of the most dangerous cities in the nation, gave them liberty to unleash their characters on a rampage with only the most minor of police intrusion. Freshman scribe Paul Elliot and unproven writer David Elliot have scraped together a tale that adds a level of believable family sentimentality to what is basically a softened gang-banger flick. The trials through which the brothers are dragged become a little hard to believe towards the end, but hey, it’s just a movie, right?

Four Brothers isn’t a great action movie, nor is it amiserable disaster. It’s a middle of the road film with a perfectly understated message about the importance of brotherly love and the unimportance of skin color. Folks willing to accept the heavy violence and rough language will enjoy an oddly formed family story that’s not afraid to take chances and fail.