..because Brooklyn’s Most Overwrought and Conscience-Stricken just didn’t work well with test audiences.
Eddie, Sal and Tango are three New York cops who never meet, and barely cross paths for the duration of director Antoine Fuqua’s (Training Day) new film. That Fuqua should be able to make three simultaneously dire stories sync up so palpably is to his credit. Brooklyn’s Finest may suffer from an abundance of tired cop-story scenarios and gimmicks, but you can’t take away from the intensity of its trio of lead performers.
Eddie (Richard Gere) is a veteran cop a full week away from retirement. He’s also a don’t-get-involved burnout, waking on a bare mattress to a bottle of whiskey and a gun in his mouth. Forced to chauffer new recruits around for his last few days on the job, Eddie doesn’t feel like handing out golden wisdom or tough-love training; he just wants to quietly get to the end of the week and sign out. His two rookies are as perplexed by Eddie’s no-interference policy as he is disgusted by their gung-ho attitudes. Gere ultimately pushes his portrayal into ugly, pathetic places, and it makes Eddie’s too-late final act seem all the more sad.
Sal (Ethan Hawke) is sweating everything. He lives in a ratty little mold-infested home, where his four kids and sickly wife (Lili Taylor), who happens to be pregnant with twins, give him reason enough to take some dangerous on-the-job risks. To gather enough cash for a down payment on a better house, he’ll shoot a snitch in the face (an opening cameo by Vincent D’Onofrio) and is part of a strike force team raiding drug dealers in the projects, where he has access to a lot of dirty money. But Sal’s integrity and faith are simultaneously faltering and eating away at him in equal measure. An early confessional scene establishes that Sal can talk his way out of anything, but he’s not able to set aside the quick-building anguish over his situation. As in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Hawke excels at playing men who are strained beyond their capacity, who look as if they are about to shake apart.
Tango (Don Cheadle) is desperate to get out from under his long-term cover as a mid-level drug dealer and into a cushy desk job and promotion. His exit is blocked when Caz (Wesley Snipes) returns from prison, the de facto kingpin of the projects. But Caz just wants a fresh start. Tango is pressed by feds to get Caz involved in a deal to strengthen a bust, which puts him in a bad place. He can help out Caz (who saved his life in prison) and face the wrath of an agent with little sympathy for anyone (Ellen Barkin, giving a master class in wincing, sneering and muscle-straining venom), or set him up and send him back to prison. Tango’s feelings about upholding the law and doing what’s best for the neighborhood aren’t always in agreement. His boss (Will Patton) tries to help, but The Powers That Be have other plans.
Three men, three gut-wrenching crises of conscience. Yet as powerful as the leads are, the big and small clichés (the retirement scenario, an honor student’s shooting death by a cop prompting a near-riot in the projects, the use of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit during a drug scene) just keep mounting, and the persistent, heavy-handed drama makes it hard to take some of it seriously. Brooklyn’s Finest is perhaps the most overwrought drama in a long time, and yet it’s also riveting, particularly in two sequences where each man is faced with an escalating situation that can’t possibly end well. They are wound together tightly, wringing every bit of tension from otherwise familiar scenes, yet they don’t always end in the most predictable ways.
Midway through the story, Eddie is questioned about an incident that he feels he could have prevented, and his superiors shift the facts of the case – in truly queasy fashion – to support a more publicity-friendly effort. That Eddie tells them where they can stick their plan is irrelevant. All three of the desperate cops are ultimately pawns in matters they have no control over, making their attempts to set things straight all the more painful to watch. Brooklyn’s Finest knows how utterly familiar it seems, but works so hard to get you to feel for these men that you can overlook the melodrama and gnashing of teeth, and just appreciate the effort.