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Four Brothers Print E-mail
Friday, 12 August 2005
ImageSome claim this is a remake of the John Wayne Western “The Sons of Katie Elder” (1965), but though it has a similar premise, they’re very different movies. And this is despite “Four Brothers” being a top-notch urban action movie—and they have become the contemporary westerns.

It takes place in Detroit. In the opening scene we see tough but fair community activist Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan) whose special interest in troubled kids has caused her to linger in a convenience store. The door bursts open and two masked gunmen rush in, killing first the clerk and then Evelyn.

The news shocks the neighborhood where Evelyn lived for many years, but no one is more shocked than her four adopted sons. She’d placed lots of troubled kids with appropriate foster parents, but these four were so troublesome she adopted them herself. Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) flies back to Detroit; he was a hockey champ but seems to have dropped out of the game. Angel (Tyrese Gibson) left the Marines not long before; Jack (Garrett Hedlund) is on the verge of rock stardom. Only Jeremiah (André Benjamin) remained in Detroit; he’s married with a couple of kids, and is about to develop some rundown property.

The four brothers haven’t seen each other in a while, but they soon fall into their familiar patterns. Bobby, Angel and Jerry rag on Jack, the youngest, teasing him about being gay (because he isn’t); Bobby’s the boss, Angel’s the tough guy and Jerry is smart. They were rough customers growing up, and they’re rough customers now—but as someone points out, they’re staid congressmen compared to what they would have been had they not been adopted by the deeply caring, tough-loving Evelyn. There’s a touching Thanksgiving dinner scene; the brothers sit in their accustomed places leaving the head chair vacant, and each in turn has a melancholy but warm memory of Evelyn.
Bobby’s such a tough guy he has to be tough even in front of his brothers; when they first come back to Evelyn’s home, Bobby ducks into the bathroom and falls apart in tears. But he doesn’t let the others know. Director John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”) handles these scenes deftly and with a great deal of sympathy for these grown men who are shattered by the death of their foster mother. There’s a moving moment just after they enter Evelyn’s house; they all fall silent, clearly flooded with significant memories of the place. Throughout the movie, Singleton makes clear the devotion of these rough-hewn guys to Evelyn and to each other.

Two of them are white and two are black, but Singleton brushes this aside quickly with a couple of brief comments. The movie is not—not at all—about race or racial conflicts. It’s about, as the title says, four brothers. They’re all likeable, no small feat when we see two of them kill a couple of disarmed hit men. You gasp at this, but their emotions have been so clearly demonstrated that you buy it and continue regarding them as the good guys—even if only relatively.

The script by David Elliot and Paul Lovett takes its time building the plot-behind-the-story, but here this is a distinct virtue. We spend this time coming to understand and enjoy the brothers’ interrelationships; we enjoy their constant bantering, the kind strong young men can engage in when they’re a little abashed about showing their love for one another.

They were shattered by Evelyn’s death, but soon come to suspect that it might have been a carefully-planned murder rather than the random act of urban violence it seems to be. Green (Terrence Dashon Howard) and Fowler (Josh Charles), the two cops the Mercer brothers deal with have different reactions. Fowler wants to brush it off and get on with more important work, but Green understands the brothers’ pain, yet cautions them against acting on their own.

But they do, of course, or there wouldn’t be a movie. With guns and grim anger the brothers begin roughing up people who have information they need. They make one embarrassing mistake—they roust Evelyn’s lawyer (Kenneth Welsh), at first convinced he’s up to no good, but it turns out he’s been secretive for an understandable reason. They press on, gradually finding links to city councilman Douglas (Barry Shabaka Henley), who has ties to brutal gang boss Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Sweet’s a rough customer himself, vicious to his underlings. In a restaurant, one of his henchmen mildly offends him, so Sweet throws the guy’s food on the floor and forces him to eat it there. Sweet evidently lives with several women—who have several children—but he’s anything but Sweet. We learn well before the Mercers do that Sweet did indeed order the murder of Evelyn Mercer.

“Four Brothers” is lively and engaging, and shot on wintry locations in Detroit and Canada. (Even the Paramount mountain logo at the beginning is especially snowy.) The photography by Peter Menzies, Jr. is crisp and clear, shot in desaturated, dark colors. The score is mostly excellent Motown oldies, with songs very well-placed throughout the film, from the opening credits to the closing. There are several major action scenes, including a car chase on snowy nighttime streets with the cars skidding and sliding over the slick roads. The violence is vivid but not overstated. The R rating must have been a foregone conclusion—Angel has a few sex scenes with his feisty Latina girlfriend (Sofia Vergara)—and the violence could have been more extreme than it is. But Singleton is more interested in the impact of violence than in flooding the screen with gore: gunfire here sounds muffled but the results are strikingly depicted.

The plot is a little murky at times; I never did quite under figure out why Sweet had Evelyn murdered, but the why isn’t the important part. It’s that he did it so callously.

The movie is more about relationships and how people interact than it is about showing them dying. The four brothers are very close, but they’re capable of falling out. Many people have kids, not just Jerry and Sweet, but other members of Sweet’s gang. (The brothers corner one of them at a bowling alley where he’s on an outing with his kids.) Some of these relationships are doomed by betrayal, but not that of the Mercers, despite what looks for a while like a falling out.

Even though it’s an action picture with urban criminals bristling with guns, it’s really about relationships and the importance of family ties—they can cut right across racial lines. It’s a brisk, strong movie about brisk, strong men, but they’re men who care about each other, and it’s that and their devotion to the woman who raised them that’s the real spine of “Four Brothers.” It’s rare for a picture like this to endorse positive values, but “Four Brothers” does this while being moving, occasionally funny and consistently entertaining.

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