‘Brooklyn’s Finest’: Tough cop tale

March 1, 2010

Once upon a time, movies like “Brooklyn’s Finest” (which opens Friday 3/5/10) were part of the mainstream, put there by writers like Joseph Wambaugh and Richard Price.


Tough and sorrowful, they offered flawed heroes, usually cops with tarnished ideals and at least a passing connection to who they used to or hoped to be. They were messy, sometimes ugly, reflecting reality rather than polishing it or fantasizing about what it should be.


The fact that a film like “Brooklyn’s Finest” struggled to find backers – and then to land a distribution deal – makes me think that films like “Serpico” or any of a dozen other gritty cop movies from the 1960s and 1970s – or even a film like “Training Day,” from the same director – films that enriched the cinema, would never find sponsors in today’s happy-ending, over-amped-editing-addicted atmosphere.


Directed by “Training Day”’s Antoine Fuqua from a script by Michael Martin (who wrote the gripping, downbeat “Sleeper Cell” for Showtime), “Brooklyn’s Finest” follows three cops who are at crisis points in their lives. Each must make a decision – and then live with it.


Sal (Ethan Hawke) is a fearless plainclothes cop with a serious financial problem. The house he shares with his wife (Lili Taylor) and kids is crawling with mold, which is a health hazard for his children and, particularly, for his asthma-afflicted wife. He’s got a deal to buy another, larger house before it goes on the market – but is short the cash he needs for the down payment. So he is walking point on bust after bust, taking risks, eyes open for the opportunity to steal drug money before it gets logged into evidence.


Tango (Don Cheadle) has been undercover so long that it’s cost him his marriage. He tells his handler (Will Patton) that he wants out – that he’s earned the right for a normal life involving suits and desks and a normal routine. His promotion, he is told, will come through as soon as he closes the book on one last major bust, targeting a drug kingpin (Wesley Snipes).


Eddie (Richard Gere) is a burnt-out case, a uniformed patrolman with a drinking problem, a death wish and a week to go until retirement. But in that final week, he’s saddled with rookie partners, who he’s supposed to show the ropes and not infect with his corrosive attitude.


Within each of these three plotlines lurk obstacles, pitfalls and moments of grace. Fuqua wastes little motion or time on anything extraneous. Instead, this is a fast-moving locomotive, with characters headed down the track to an inevitable collision with a bad destiny.


The film reeks of desperation, as characters search for anything – anything – that will keep them from having to make a choice they can’t avoid. You can practically see the fingernail marks in the pavement as they are dragged to their fate – except when they plunge headlong into it.


That moment comes in a climax washed in blood, as the three characters converge – on separate missions – on a Brooklyn housing project (literally crossing paths at one point). If that seems too neat to some, well, too bad. It ties things up in a way that is both convincing and tragic – and which demonstrates the sprawl of this particular bit of urban blight. There’s a certain ironic justice to the way things out, and which of these characters survives the moment of truth.


But this film also works as well as it does because of the central performances: Hawke as the frantic, reckless cop for whom saving his family trumps all other moral considerations; Cheadle (who never makes a false move as an actor) as the moral guy whose entire undercover life is built on lies and betrayal of people he has had to trust with his life; Gere, who gives off fatalistic resignation in waves, as a guy who’s given up – yet still grasps at reasons not to.


When it was shown at Sundance in 2009, this film was 15 minutes longer and felt as if it tried to explain too much. Since then, Fuqua has honed it, toughened it, made its pace more relentless and its tragedy more telling. Dark and exciting, “Brooklyn’s Finest” is a dirty little beauty, a cop tale in which nobody wins and the best one can hope for is a draw. Except for the audience, that is.


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