Few movies have explored the thin line between vigilant law enforcement and rampant abuse of authority better than Antoine Fuqua's gritty 2001 thriller Training Day, the vehicle that earned Denzel Washington an Oscar and offered Ethan Hawke one of his best roles to date. So having Fuqua and Hawke revisit the mean streets for another sordid look at police work on the edge holds a lot of promise. The results, alas, in the ambitious new cop drama Brooklyn's Finest, are rarely arresting.
Fuqua and writer Michael C. Martin (who did magnificent work on Showtime's Sleeper Cell) try mightily to elevate the narrative, which moves briskly while juggling three character stories. One involves Sal (Hawke), a cop whose money and domestic problems constantly threaten to overwhelm him. Already living in a space too small for his pregnant wife (Lili Taylor) and family, he's trying to close a deal on a huge house in a ritzy neighborhood he knows he can't afford. The fact that Sal's often the point man on drug busts where thousands of dollars are confiscated only increases his mental strain.
Storyline two features Tango (Don Cheadle), so deep undercover that he thinks, lives and acts like the pushers he's infiltrated. He's even done a prison stretch to strengthen his masquerade, but now Tango's wedged into a horrible position. A big-time drug boss (Wesley Snipes) is out of jail, and Tango's superiors want him back behind bars permanently. Both his immediate supervisor (Will Patton) and a snippy FBI type (Ellen Barkin) want Tango to set the guy up — no matter that he saved Tango's life in prison.
Finally, there's burned-out Eddie (Richard Gere), a week away from retirement, weary, disillusioned and despondent because his lifetime of service hasn't changed the neighborhood much. Addicts roam everywhere, drug lords remain in business, and he's resorted to the company of prostitutes for solace. Now his final act involves breaking in yet another rookie — far less dramatically than Denzel in Training Day — and making it to Friday in one piece.
As these stories converge, Fuqua and Martin document a world of decline, squalor, greed and moral decay. There are few heroes and plenty of villains. Residents view cops as an occupying force, don't trust them, and look the other way while drug dealers live in luxury. It's a backdrop with a powerful sense of urban rot and ethical impasse.
All that's missing is something besides routine cop-show theatrics and predictable situations to drive the plot. Brooklyn's Finest weakens as the three-tiered narrative winds toward conclusion: The structure forces Fuqua and Martin to compress key plot points to tie together all the dangling ends. Even those who haven't seen a police drama since The Streets of San Francisco was on TV won't have a tough time figuring out where the movie's headed.
One plus, though, was Fuqua's decision to film in the rugged Van Dyke projects, in the heart of Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood. This gives the movie a visual credibility impossible to obtain on a Vancouver soundstage. Like the British and French noir dramas The Belcourt's been showing lately, which get a lot of their impact from the grit of real city streets, it reinforces the inestimable value of location shooting. (Reportedly, security was provided by the Nation of Islam's Fruit of Islam corps, a group no one even considered bothering.) The performances, meanwhile, are mostly exemplary — especially by Snipes, who turns in one of his best on-the-edge psycho turns since the days of New Jack City.
Still, Brooklyn's Finest doesn't fully satisfy, even though it boasts memorable moments and gripping examples of urban pathos. Training Day left you with the joint feeling of being hit in the gut yet dazzled by the performances and the intensity of the filmmaking — the feeling you get from great cop and corruption thrillers going back to Sidney Lumet's Serpico and beyond. Even though Brooklyn's Finest never makes that rank, I have no doubt that Antoine Fuqua has another one of those left in him.
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