Posted by: greercn | June 12, 2010

Brooklyn’s Finest

Ethan Hawke makes the leap from young pretty-boy to compelling middle-aged character actor in this police story. There are weaknesses in this film; the 133 minute length could have done with sharper editing.  Some of the plots linger and you look at your watch a few times. Despite those reservations, this is worth seeing, just for Hawke’s extraordinary performance.

I am an occasional and fickle fan of his. “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” are both in my top twenty best movies ever. In 1997, I was on a visit to New York City when Hawke and Uma Thurman walked into the shop where I was buying jeans. I was impressed that the salesman continued to fuss over me and that Hawke and Thurman – both beautiful – were impeccably polite and down to earth. They chatted. I liked them. 

But I have come to expect uneven performances from both of them, together or apart. Still, there is no doubt that Hawke’s work on this role will lift his acting career into a different and Oscar-nominated league. His voice, face and body language are just magnificent, even though much of the plot is familiar from too many similar cop films.

The story is about three police officers with very different personal lives and troubles in a part of Brooklyn that is not part of the New York tourist office’s advertising. It’s grim.  American movies have a strange relationship with New York’s finest, casting them as hero/martyrs or villains. Since 9/11, the emphasis has been on reverence, but realism tends to stay far from the screen. “Brooklyn’s Finest” is, at least, an attempt to show human beings with real lives.

Richard Gere’s  Eddie is within seven days of retirement and wants a quiet week. Don Cheadle’s Tango wants to stop doing undercover work but has spent years setting up Wesley Snipes’ Caz. Tango’s superiors – Ellen Barkin as Agent Smith and Will Patton as Lieutenant Hobarts – want him to finish the job and bring Caz down. Hawke’s Sal just wants a better home for his growing family, but is getting more desperate for the money he needs and gets tempted by the vast amounts of drugs cash his job exposes him to.

Gere is great and world weary, wearing his flaws with style. Cheadle is someone I love to watch, as he always brings depth to his characters. There just seems to be more to him, in everything he does. He and Snipes have an easy chemistry and their scenes are believable.

There isn’t a lot of room for women here, but Lili Taylor as Sal’s wife Angie and Shannon Kane as Chantel give performances that stand out. Ellen Barkin plays monstrous ambition with only a slight whiff of ham acting.

Director Antoine Fuqua is yet another music video person making films and I think that’s why the action sometimes flags. He doesn’t control the self-indulgence of his stars. But the music is very good and enhances the action. And he has a nice line in visual style.

The script by Michael C. Martin is believable and character driven and moves along around the notion that things are not right or wrong, but “righter and wronger”, as once character says early on.

Vincent D’Onofrio and Brian F. O’Byrne both offer work in their minor parts that stands out and act as solid foils to the main characters.

Yes, it’s just another police story. Police work in New York is not a lot of fun and not well-paid, but you probably already knew that.  This part of Brooklyn is not aspirational, to be as ironic as the title of this movie. The audience at the Stratford Picture House was disappointingly sparse, due to good weather and England’s first World Cup match against the USA.

If you’ve missed “The Wire” and adored “NYPD Blue”, much will be familiar to you and will fill the gap left by the end of those TV shows. The surprises are genuinely shocking and the film is worth seeing. But I was hoping for more from such a great cast and left feeling it was more than a little formulaic. However, Hawke’s performance will stay in my mind for a very long time.

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