John Singleton started his film career at age twenty-four with a knockout as the writer/director of Boyz n the Hood (1991). Nothing he’s done since has come within a square mile of Boyz n the Hood for quality of story, meaning, or acting and hasn’t even put in a writing credit since 2001. His other projects that floated into the public consciousness are Shaft (2000) and 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) (and also directed the Taylor Lautner disaster Abduction (2011)). Not exactly the proto-Spike Lee one would expect from his first outing. But the one I just watched is called Four Brothers (2005) which flirted with goodness but only walked away with charm.
Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan) is an urban saint. She was a foster mother to hundreds of kids who she shaped up and moved on to caring families. But there were four boys she just couldn’t shift. She did the best she could and they loved her for it. Lt. Green (Terrence Howard), our expositor for this evening, said “These kids are congressmen compared to what they would have been.” Well, the saint became a martyr and the boys are in town to serve up some De-troit justice. Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) is a hothead and general rogue. Jerry (André Benjamin) is the most normal, being a working class hero and rising star in the union (of some kind). Angel (Tyrese Gibson) was a marine, but hasn’t done much since he left the service. Jackie (Garrett Hedlund) is the baby of the family and something of a third-class rocker. After some very haphazard detection, they find out that Mama was murdered and things point to Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the local heavy, being a part of that.
The prevailing quality of this film is sloppiness. Top to bottom, nothing is perfectly handled. But at the same time, you can’t really say that anything is unforgivably bad. Like the boys, the movie is so charming that I kind of forgave them for their rambunctious traits. The plot, if you outlined it and then read it over, was quite good. The trouble was that Singleton didn’t apply his Boyz n the Hood instincts and values to the plot. This is a mystery about personal violence with a long cast of characters that need to be juggled more lightly. Singleton also spends a lot of time building up some enormous thrills that, upon reflection, are pretty ludicrous and yet they don’t check back in on the characters’ responses to it. How did it feel to have a six-man hit squad turn your neighborhood into Tora Bora? Not sure, we’ve moved on. My preference is always for the understated, which this movie rarely indulges in, so it was never going to be entirely satisfying.
And another thing! You can’t just slam a great big red herring down in front of us and then wipe it away in a ten second explanation—an explanation by the way that sounds very much like a lie but isn’t. That’s a script problem from David Elliot and Paul Lovett. These guys are double offenders for writing some rather sloppy dialogue. It took a lot of suspension of my own senses of normal speech to enjoy myself during this movie. This sloppy speech also bled into character fuzziness. Sweet, played by the terrific Chiwetel Ejiofor, is at first incredibly ominous when he makes one of his lackeys eat off the floor but oversteps (for plot reasons, granted) into ham-fisted bullying. Sweet, to be able to put the kind of people in his pocket that he has would have to be smarter in his tactics than that.. If they’d tightened up either of these problems, I would have had an exponentially greater opinion of the movie.
There are two reasons why I stuck with my liking the movie and will give an above-luke-warm recommendation to you folks at home to check it out (if you can’t or won’t watch Payback (1999)). The first is the cast. They have pretty darn good chemistry and that aspect of the dialogue is usually tight. The second reason is the first five minutes of the movie that set a tone that I loved (and sincerely wished they carried through). There’s a great Motown/rock soundtrack, solid characterization, and a terrific look not unlike Killing Them Softly (2012). Well, there’s a third element too, which is revenge performed with reckless abandon.
A lot of opportunities missed, but enough taken to let your brain fill in the blanks.