After mainstreaming himself out with the likes of the fun "Shaft" and the woeful "2 Fast 2 Furious", John Singleton tries to return to his earlier and grittier work with "Four Brothers" - a film that can best be described as a 70's blaxploitation western family drama. Never quite settling on what it wants to be, the film veers between a balls out celebration of vigilante justice and machismo bullshit, to a direct to cable Hallmark movie complete with weepy moments where the four guys see their dead mother appearing to them and reminding them to be good boys.
Despite all the cliches and character problems though, Singleton does know how to shoot gritty urban drama. Detroit yet again comes off as the meanest city on the planet, a place where one can't walk down a street without being shot at. Combining the snowy and dank streets of the city and on-location shooting in Toronto of all places, the film certainly feels suited to its setting even if events played out are far too silly for such a place. The action, when it happens, also has a refreshing amateurness and reality to it that seems to have far less studio polish than Singleton's last few movies.
Also strong is the four actor's chemistry. Whilst Wahlberg gets some bad emotional moments and lacks the gravitas to be the avenging angel he appears to be towards the film's end, he does have some good bonding scenes and portrays the tough angle well. The other three all prove surprisingly engaging despite their obvious cliched character developments. Much of the film's humour comes from the friendly insulting banter that brothers often indulge in, but too often it becomes a crux. Tyrese's insatiable libido, Benjamin's attempts to break away from his past and Hedlund's questionable sexuality all make for attempted humour or mild subplot development but that's about it.
Of the four its surprisingly Hedlund who stands out by far with the toughest role requiring him to portray the brother who's the most vulnerable and yet has the greatest potential - the very handsome young thesp portrays all this despite his interactions being essentially limited to the others making incessant jokes about him loving to get his ass fucked. Benjamin as well is remarkably credible with the most predictable of the roles as the brother who wants to go legit, get away and may eventually turn Judas on them. Supporting roles vary in quality with the two memorable (albeit for the wrong reasons) being Terrence Dashon Howard's strong but nicely underplayed police detective, and Chiwetel Ejiofor's turn as an over the top gangster villain that looks more suited for a "Live and Let Die" sequel.
Performances and look aside however, the film is ultimately a mess thanks to its hopelessly insipid script. The general premise is tired, the characters all surprisingly stock and one-note, events unfold in both predictable and totally uncredible ways, and so on. Even taken as a pure revenge flick which its so obviously aiming to be, all of this will not only strike as all too familiar, but Singleton's ham-handed sense of editing and pace is so keen on striking a style that its assorted segways into delivering a little substance utterly crash.
For all their nostalgic charm, those 70's flicks had a sense of 'cool' and genuine era charm about them which this film rarely strikes. This is especially most notable in all the film's little elements ranging from the decent but familiar score to the street justice elements which may have been believable back in the 70's, but just ring false in the contemporary era. What could've saved it is a real display of nobility and kin between these brothers that would lift the film above its pure pulp movie trappings but it never tries.
Its pure machismo hedonism, reveling in its own testosterone. When it sticks to that formula it actually works (the action, the tracking down of the killers, etc.) but when it tries to become something else, whether it be a smart and credible thriller or a throwback revenge piece, it falls apart.