Heard the one about the dirty cop stealing money from the criminals he’s meant to be locking up? You have? Okay, well how about the one with the cop who’s got eight days to retirement? It could be seven, just to mix it up a little. That one too, huh? All right, last try: the undercover cop who’s in so deep that he doesn’t know where his loyalties lie anymore? Anyone?
Just to be clear, then, Brooklyn’s Finest is a film about New York police officers that won’t be all that unfamiliar to anyone who’s seen a film about New York police officers before. If, as the saying goes, there are only seven original stories you can tell, Brooklyn’s Finest does its best to cram as many of them as it can into its two hours.
But that’s about all the bad there is here(apart from a little bit at the end. No-one’s perfect). Antoine Fuqua returns to the scene of his earlier Training Day and bring us a richer and more satisfying story, one of cops who are neither bad nor good, but somewhere in between.
And yes, it tells well-worn stories, the core of which you’ll no doubt have seen more than once before. But Fuqua does the familiar better than most. In his camera, everything old is new again, all that was stale and tired is now fresh and exciting. Finest jolts and shocks much more than you’d expect, a violent film that feels anything but gratuitous.
It opens with a terrific scene too, the great and under-used Vincent D’Onofrio taking centre stage to spell out the film’s central message: this isn’t about men doing what’s right or wrong, but what they need to.
From there it’s straight to work. With three main storylines at the heart of the film, the next 40 minutes is all set up. There’s Ethan Hawke’s dodgy police officer, at first glance coming off as a retread of his nervy thief in the excellent Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead with a badge, but who soon turns into something much more interesting.
Next up is Richard Gere’s seven-days-from-retirement police officer, a man who’s shirked from doing anything honourable for most of his years on the job and can’t wait to cash in his pension. And then it’s Don Cheadle’s undercover police officer, in so deep for so long that his loyalties are split – should he follow his superior’s wishes or protect his friend, the recently released gang boss (a rejuvenated Wesley Snipes, back on the cinema screen for the first time since 2004’s Blade: Trinity and who does great things in nicely understated ways)?
And so Fuqua has to juggle for much of the first hour, cutting between the three strands to keep everything in play and at a gentle simmer. But Fuqua’s skill is his pacing. He has an expert handling of how to hold our attention and then grip it like a vice when he wants to. The film builds towards a middle action scene like Heat did with its stand-out bank heist, dark clouds forming overhead and then erupting in a storm of violence.
Yet, unlike Heat, Finest‘s action scenes are small and claustrophobic. They never go for the big, expansive vistas, and they’re brilliant for it. Each one feels like a nightmare: tight spaces filled with scores of police officers and blanketed in darkness. They’re also economical in the best possible way, not a single gunshot wasted, each shocking in the impact it has.
Just when it seems like Fuqua has pulled out his ace too early with that middle crescendo, Finest still has more in the bank, throwing in three climactic showdowns for the price of one, all wrought with tension and drama. It falls down a little when it reaches for a Crash-style ‘we’re all connected’ feeling, but it avoids the lurching plot contrivance that made Training Day‘s bloody climax a little too hard to swallow.
Most of all, it’s a film made up of terrific parts. Cheadle gets to let loose in a role that brings to mind his breakthrough performance as Mouse in The Devil In A Blue Dress, with a near serene calmness covering an explosive inner rage. Hawke adds depth to what could have been another clichéd cop-on-the-take character, making his family man an achingly sympathetic character despite his acts of violence. While Gere takes advantage of his best role for a long time, a once good man now filled with self hate and deplorable traits. It’s almost a combination of his Pretty Woman and Internal Affairs roles, charisma and seediness as happy bedfellows.
For all the great work in front of the camera, however, it’s Fuqua and screenwriter Michael C. Martin who deserve most credit, crafting a film over two hours long that doesn’t drag for a second. Brooklyn’s Finest doesn’t tell the most original of tales, but it does tell them extraordinarily well. And sometimes that’s all you need.