A film becoming a cult classic is never a guarantee. Some movies have all the makings of cult classics but then end up having so much mainstream appeal that they just become classic classics instead (see: John Wick). Other movies are made with the sincerest aspirations to quality only to become fan favorites when they fall well short (see: The Room).
Still, many more films appear to have all the elements in play for cult classicdom but inevitably end up in a DVD bargain bin or streaming service backpage all the same. Most of them deserve such a fate. After all, not everything needs a fandom. Some, however, deserve a second look. A prime example is John Singleton’s 2005 action film Four Brothers.
Four Brothers is a story about, well … four brothers. The four Mercer boys were all adopted by the kindly Evelyn Mercer of Detroit, Michigan when no one else in the foster system could handle them. Despite Bobby, Angel, Jeremiah, and Jack’s rough upbringing, Evelyn loved her adopted sons and they loved her. When Evelyn is murdered at a convenience store in a robbery gone wrong, all four brothers return to Detroit to bury her, make sense of what happened, uncover a conspiracy or two, and crack a hell of a lot of skulls in the process.
Nearly 20 years after its release, Four Brothers feels like a film that should have a small, yet dedicated fanbase. It is a violent, self-aware spectacle filled with compelling performances and a sturdy sense of place and time.
It’s Directed by John Singleton
Here’s a fun fact for you. Four Brothers director John Singleton was the first African-American ever nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Boyz in the Hood in 1991. In addition to being a wild indictment on the Academy’s decades of racial oversights, it’s also a hearty endorsement of one of cinema’s most groundbreaking figures.
John Singleton just rules, having also helmed Higher Learning, Baby Boy, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and numerous episodes of television (including the Emmy-nominated fifth episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson). Sadly, Singleton passed away in 2019 but he left behind great work like Four Brothers for future generations to discover.
It’s Got a Great Cast
The star power of Four Brothers‘ cast is probably what encouraged Paramount Pictures to greenlight it in the first place. The titular four brothers consist of two legit movie stars (Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson), one music icon (André Benjamin a.k.a. André 3000 of Outkast), and one young actor who would go on to have a hell of a career in mostly supporting roles (Garrett Hedlund).
All four actors are mostly superb in this film and fall into recognizable character archetypes that makes the plot go down smoother. Wahlberg’s Bobby is the oldest and the leader of the Mercers. Angel (Gibson) is his right hand man and enforcer. Jack (Hedlund) is the youngest and most malleable. The only archetype that doesn’t quite work is Benjamin as family man and construction worker Jeremiah. The musician does his best in the role but it quite simply doesn’t make much sense to cast one of music’s most creative and colorful figures as the most serious character in the film.
Beyond the Mercer brothers themselves though, Four Brothers is filled with other recognizable faces having plenty of fun. Terrence Howard (Iron Man) and Josh Charles (The Good Wife) turn in admirable performances as grizzled Detroit detectives. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Doctor Strange) is at his scenery-chewing best as the villainous gangster Victor Sweet. Even Sofia Vergara (Modern Family) and Taraji P. Henson (Empire) show up for some short, but sweet moments.
It’s a Western in a Snowy City
Four Brothers has often been described as being influenced by blaxploitation movies. While that’s certainly true, the core of its story harkens back to an even older cinematic movement. The film is basically a Western, albeit one set in a perpetually snowing urban environment. The movie is loosely inspired by the 1965 Western The Sons of Katie Elder, starring John Wayne and Dean Martin. In that movie, the four sons of Katie Elder return to their town of Clearwater, Texas to attend their mother’s funeral.
Four Brothers‘ Western bona fides gives the movie a sense of narrative purpose and gives Singleton some fun tropes to play with. Additionally, the plot always makes good use of its time and place. In their search for their mothers’ killer, the Mercers are able to glean that he likely has an afro because the corner store clerk compares him to mid-2000s Detroit Piston Ben Wallace. The brothers also play a hell of a lot of ice hockey.
Though Four Brothers is set in the “modern” era of 2005, the costuming for its many gangsters, pimps, and hustlers appear to be straight out of the ’70s. Just look at the pristine white sweaters and animal furs in the fight above.
Part of this costume design decision could be contributed to the struggling post-industrial Detroit feeling a city outside of time itself. Another part of it could be that it’s just fun to dress up bad guys like comic book villains. Embrace the camp!
It Has a Goofy Basketball Scene
Having a weird non-sequitur basketball scene doesn’t automatically make a film a cult classic but it sure does appear to help. Who could forget that time Michael J. Fox’s Scott Howard scored roughly 100 points in Teen Wolf (1985)? Or when Halle Berry and Benjamin Bratt changed the game in Catwoman? Four Brothers‘ basketball scene isn’t quite as intense but it is satisfyingly strange.
When the Mercer brothers’ search for their mother’s killer takes them to a basketball game, Bobby grabs the ball from the ref and shouts in “I got tha rock now! I got this motherfucker now! What what!” while dribbling like a jackass. He then bonks a guy in the head with said basketball and draws his gun to get the crowd to listen to him … as one does.
It’s Hilariously, Spectacularly Violent
Much of Four Brothers‘ running time is dedicated to the Mercer boys sleuthing their way through the seedy underbelly of Detroit to get answers. But once the action arrives it is sudden, unexpected, and wonderfully destructive. Before the movie’s satisfying mano a mano concluding fight, the big action setpiece features some goons firing round and rounds of automatic weapons into the Mercer home.
Most movie gunfights take on a familiar rhythm. The set designer places a bullet hole here, the VFX supervisor engineers some glass and dust kicking up there. Under Singleton’s direction though, this simple gun fight feels like an apocalyptic onslaught of hot lead. Cacophonous, constant gunfire absolutely tears this house up and any shots that Bobby and his brothers get off feel like small miracles.
This scene also culminates in the movie’s most tragic, unnerving moment that you will be blindsided by once you watch it (or merely look up “Four Brothers” on YouTube”).
It’s Got Sequel Potential
The good news for Four Brothers’ cult classic potential is that no IP is every truly gone in the modern era. Even though the film only scored a paltry 52% on Rotten Tomatoes, it did take in nearly $93 million on a $30 million budget. Could that be enough for a sequel roughly 20 years later?
In 2020, Tyrese Gibson wrote on his Instagram that a sequel called “Five Brothers” is coming soon. And to that we say: the more brothers, the merrier.
Four Brothers is available to stream on Prime Video and Paramount+ in the U.S. and Sky Go and Paramount+ in the U.K.