Trifurcated into the tales of the undercover narc with confused allegiances (Don Cheadle); the by-the-book patrolman on the cusp of retirement (Richard Gere); and the Catholic super-cop (Ethan Hawke) whose family comes first, Brooklyn’s Finest gives us three distinct story arcs that intersect only conceptually and Antoine Fuqua unexpectedly allows his would-be musketeers to keep their distance.
There will be plenty of lazy critics out there calling it derivative, but Fuqua has always flipped his fingers at genre-cliches in the past, embracing them, discarding them or subverting them with equal indiscretion. When a film is this blood-pumping it’s hardly relevant. Fuqua quite simply has lensed the lanes and avenues, the days of raging heat and the nights of Brooklyn better than anyone else has before. Rarely is action actually shot inside a bodega, and in fact the scene of a drug factory bust-up is placed in and underneath one. This film has great looks and thrilling movement, rendered with such care and resolution that it feels like the real thing. It just sizzles with tension and sweat and never lets up, and it has good enough performances all around to keep the narrative propelled and the developing relationships interesting.
Also working in this film’s favor is the relentlessly soul-crushing atmosphere. Instead of simply pouring on the testosterone and lighting it up with a contemporary soundtrack and leaving it at that, Fuqua chose to imbue even the more mundane, expository scenes with a sense of existential dread. All the vicissitudes of being a cop on the beat are rendered small and large, from respecting precinct boundaries to coping with criticism from the brass about media scrutiny, from dodging pedestrian insults to gunfire.
Hawke comes close to a faultless characterization here as Sal, a conflicted cop already with five kids and twins on the way, who is appropriately red-eyed, pale-faced and desperate. He’s building a biblical family, his pregnant wife is breathing in life-threatening mold and a cop’s salary isn’t going to help him get a new house. His poker buddies remind him that he’s worth more dead than alive because of the insurance paid to families of deceased officers. So he reasons that intercepting drug money that only goes toward fattening the fat cats anyway is morally permissible. These circumstances lead to some interesting scenes on the beat with Sal trying to get in ahead of his comrades on trafficking raids to get the loot before it becomes evidence.
Don Cheadle is at his best when he plays his role low-key, letting his big, expressive eyes tell the story. Like Billy Costigan in The Departed, Tango is a deep-cover narc who lets his underworld relationships interfere with the job. He owes a debt to his pal Caz (Wesley Snipes) who is fresh out of prison, but has now become the target of Tango’s boss’ squeeze operation. He desperately wants a desk job, off the streets and out of the crossfire and the delivery of Caz may mean a promotion and the fulfillment of those desires. This pits him against himself, his liaison Lt. Bill (Will Patton), and Agent Smith, played ferociously by a scene-chewing Ellen Barkin.
Gere’s well-worn cop, Eddie, plays mentor to a couple of fresh recruits (Training Day comes to mind), the first of whom thinks Eddie a coward and tells him so. The kid is paired with a more amenable vet and is killed in action shortly thereafter. The second recruit is like a young version of Eddie, more utilitarian, less idealistic. On a routine stop for petty theft, Eddie leaves the spright in charge of the scene as he goes back to the patrol car to check out the perp’s identification. When he returns the recruit has lost control of the situation, lying prone on the bleeding perp who has three bullets in his stomach. When the coppers die it’s routine, but when they kill… a tumult of public outrage follows, compelling the police force to consider labeling the departed a drug dealer to save face.
An interesting side story and ultimately important for the film’s narrative goals is Eddie’s long-term relationship with Chantel (Shannon Kane), a beautiful and beguiling hooker. Her pad is gaudy, vibrant and alluring, in stark contrast to the street and Sal’s domestic clutter. Eddie proposes to her upon his retirement, but he knows it’s a desperate attempt to keep something young and vital in his life before he ambles to his retirement home in Connecticut. It’s this same impetus that motivates him to sniff out a missing young girl, forced into prostitution on the same block where his part-time lover resides.
The film feels like it’s going to falter in its third act, but instead of falling prey to the most obnoxious and successful formula in Hollywood—where all the disparate tangents of story and character are fused into a predestined climax—Fuqua takes a slightly different angle. Sal and Tango are competing for their lives, attempting to reconcile duty with their own sense of justice. Eddie is the foil, coming out of retirement to perform a Travis Bickle-inspired act of selflessness. Like much of the film, these scenes are messy and hair-raising. On the way to their respective ends, Sal and Tango pass one another on a sparsely lit street and attempt furtive glances at one another; their eyes meet, letting the audience know that some morbid conclusion is just around the corner.