Opens Fri., March 5
In the 1950s, the advent of television all but destroyed the movies, stealing their audience and forcing studios to dream up shiny new tricks (3-D! CinemaScope!) to get asses back in the seats. Nowadays, television has cornered the market on a less-marketable commodity: quality. Thanks to OnDemand and illegal streaming sites, viewers can watch TV when they want, which allows television writers to work on a larger canvas with more Tolstoyan density, safe with the knowledge that viewers no longer have a good excuse to miss an episode.
This is a long way of saying that shows like The Wire and The Shield have rendered films like Brooklyn’s Finest utterly obsolete. The film plays like a season of a potentially terrific cop saga cruelly whittled down to fit in with multiplex schedules.
A pessimistic exploration into different aspects of police work, Brooklyn’s Finest divides its attention threefold, with refreshingly little overlap. There’s the crooked narc (Ethan Hawke) who swipes cash from his busts, but only to pay for a bigger house for his swelling family. There’s the longtime undercover cop (Don Cheadle) who has developed sympathies for his drug-dealing kingpin mark (Wesley Snipes). Richard Gere, for some reason, is here, too, as a weary flatfoot seven days from retirement. (Aware of the cliche, writer Michael C. Martin puts the lives of his rookie partners, not Gere, in danger.)
The (woefully limited) presence of The Wire’s Michael K. Williams and Isaiah “Sheee-iiiiiiit” Whitlock aside, Brooklyn’s Finest knows it can’t be as expansive or narratively experimental as TV. It even has a narrow theme: the way police can become as evil as those they seek to punish. (The final shot finds one of our leads wandering, lost, through a sea of flashing police lights.) And yet it still feels needlessly compressed, forced by the limits of screen time to simplify characterizations and employ cheap dramatic tricks. That none of its lead performances are credible wounds further: Hawke is a sweaty ham while Cheadle, with his sincere face, is the least convincing undercover cop in film history. (All he had to do was exhume his ruthless thug from Out of Sight.)
Luckily, this is a terribly inconsistent film, meaning every now and then it gets things just right. Grace notes abound, and its portrayal of Hawke as infinitely more villainous than chivalrous is a gray area few films would visit. Hey, there’s usually a gap in HBO’s lineup.
Overly unusual protagonists and the requisite miserable Swedish locations aside, this is standard detective stuff.