I’m running a little late tonight, because I made the mistake of rewatching this flick immediately with the DVD commentary. I also fell into a bit of a YouTube hole when I got home from the office. I would say I need to stop turning on my computer as soon as I get in from work, but these columns won’t write themselves. More’s the pity.
Four men and a shotgun.
After Evelyn Mercer is killed in a convenience store robbery, her four adopted sons return to their old Detroit stomping grounds to find out who was responsible, and make them pay. Righteous ass-kickery ensues.
Loosely based on The Sons Of Katie Elder, John Singleton’s eighth movie as director is a complete throwback. It marries western archetypes to a seventies-era urban revenge aesthetic, with a Blaxploitation villain. It shouldn’t work, but it strangely does. And the credit for that can be laid mostly at the cast. Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, André Benjamin and Garrett Hedlund play the Mercer boys with such an easy camaraderie that you can believe these four really have lived together for years. According to Singleton’s DVD commentary, all the expository dialogue was of course fully scripted, but in the scenes where they are just hanging out and bickering they were encouraged to improvise. This lends those scenes an unforced immediacy that adds to a sense that the world we see here continues to exist outside the film. It is clear that the four actors were close during shooting, particularly in the bathroom scene (of which I will speak no more).
If the four all play well off each other, Benjamin and Wahlberg are the strongest actors individually. As Jeremiah, the most mature and settled Mercer (with his own family and business), Benjamin completely sheds his André 3000 persona from his Outkast days. You could easily forget this is his first major role. Mark Wahlberg gets a lot of stick for his acting abilities (sometimes, probably, fairly) but I’ve been a fan since Three Kings. As the type of guy who can walk into the centre of a crowded basketball court and introduce himself while waving a gun around, Bobby Mercer is never less than interesting.
Besides the Mercers themselves, the cast is rounded out by Sofia Vergara as the fiery girlfriend of Angel Mercer (Gibson), Terrence Howard as Lt. Green, a cop who has had prior run-ins with most of the brothers but is sympathetic to their desire for justice if not their methods, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Victor Sweet, the Detroit gangster who seems to think he’s living in a Foxy Brown sequel. Sweet is a great character; petty and vindictive but hilarious to watch. He can’t get through a scene without trying to humiliate someone. The first time we see him, in fact, he ends up forcing one of his henchmen to eat his dinner off the floor in a restaurant as punishment for taking a bite of his meal while Victor was talking. While it’s always fun to watch Chewie get his teeth into not only the role but also every scrap of scenery he can find, these moments aren’t there just to show off how nuts Sweet is. They also work towards setting up the finale, making it all more believable as opposed to a super convenient deus ex machina.
As a follow up to 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, Singleton’s direction of Four Brothers couldn’t be more different. Out goes the sun-blasted, slo-mo car porn and CGI’d-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives chase scenes and in comes a much more grounded and mature production, visually reminiscent of the 1970’s more nihilistic crime movies like Dirty Harry and The French Connection. He does manage to get one car chase into the flick though; two cars in hot pursuit through the deserted streets of Detroit in the middle of a blizzard, with both vehicles almost comically ill-equipped for the conditions. I just have to mention the music while I’m here. I am sorely tempted to go and get myself a copy of this film’s soundtrack album and just play it over and over. Full of glorious late-sixties/early-seventies Motown – mostly The Temptations and Marvin Gaye – that so rarely features in movie scores these days, it is another example of the throwback nature of this whole project.
If there is any one problem with this flick it is with the nature of some of the violent scenes. All the Mercers have had run-ins with the law before (although we don’t really find out to what extent) but they still seem very comfortable with killing people. The brothers manage to rack up quite a respectable body count on their quest for justice and, while they’re all arguably justifiable from a story point of view, some of the deaths amount to nothing more than executions. This is another example of Singleton trying to recreate that nihilistic urban revenge feel, but there are some elements of that trope that don’t sit so well with modern audiences. I got the feeling that these moments were supposed to be cheered on by the viewer as well. It makes you wonder exactly what kind of audience Singleton had in mind during production. A bunch of 14-year-old boys perhaps? I have to note that as distasteful to some as these moments will likely be, they take up only a small part of the run time and are far from glamourised. The flick is not wall-to-wall murderdeathkill.
I found Four Brothers to be a pretty enjoyable movie overall, but I can’t help wondering how many great films we might have had by now if Singleton had continued making the more issues-based films of his early career.