Within the first few minutes of Four Brothers, a character comments that the main characters don’t look like brothers, since two are black and two are white. In fact, all four are the adopted sons of Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan), a Detroit woman who has taken in hundreds of troubled foster kids over the years. When Evelyn is murdered during what appears to be a convenience store hold-up, her boys come home for the funeral.
Most of them remain troubled, but none are in jail. Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) is a former hockey player with an anger problem; Angel (Tyrese Gibson) was briefly in the military; Jack (Garrett Hedlund) is a struggling rock musician with sexual identity issues; and Jerry (Andre Benjamin) is married and trying to open his own business. Not long after the funeral, they hear gossip that their mother may not have been an innocent bystander. Word on the street says that the killers sought her out. Armed with this information, the Mercer boys set out to find Evelyn’s killer.
The trail starts with a local gang and moves up the political ladder. At the top is a local crime lord named Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor of Dirty Pretty Things). The Mercers bully and threaten whomever they need to as they try to get closer to Sweet. Meanwhile, two police detectives – Green (Terrence Howard) and Fowler (Josh Charles) – warn the boys not to interfere with the official criminal investigation. Believing that the cops are ineffective, they ignore the advice.
Four Brothers features very good acting from its quartet of stars. As a group, they have natural chemistry that allows us to believe them as siblings, adopted or not. They rag on each other incessantly, yet also display a lot of love and affection. Mark Wahlberg is playing a different kind of character: a no-nonsense bruiser who doesn’t think twice about brandishing a gun at a high school basketball game if it will provide him with information. The best performance, though, comes from Andre Benjamin, better known as “Andre 3000” from the hip-hop group Outkast. After small supporting roles in Hollywood Homicide and Be Cool, Benjamin proves to have real dramatic skills. His character is interesting because he’s the most mature and level-headed of the brothers, yet he finds his own ways of getting into trouble.
The movie also has crisp direction courtesy of John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood). He effectively captures the milieu of a run-down Detroit neighborhood where crime is rampant. There’s quite a bit of violence in the picture – shootouts, car chases, fist fights – and Singleton brings intensity to these moments. The Mercer boys have the “eye for an eye” approach to solving the murder, and the director doesn’t ignore the moral implications of their actions. This is two-fisted pulp storytelling all the way.
Although there is some undeniable entertainment value here, the plot of Four Brothers ultimately proves to be pretty standard. In these kinds of movies, there’s always a dirty cop, a crooked politician, and a vicious crime lord who has lots of influential people on his payroll. The early scenes are most interesting because the Mercer brothers explore local gang connections to the murder. Consider Evelyn Mercer: here’s a woman who devoted her life to helping seriously misspent youth. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting - and ironic - had her killing been related to gang activity? That way, as they dig deeper, the brothers could have faced what their life might have been had she never taken them in.
I really wish the story had gone in that direction, but the subplot involving the crime lord takes over by the end, and the mother becomes almost an afterthought. Something consequently gets lost. The early scenes really make an impact. When the Mercer brothers sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, the camera pulls back to reveal an empty chair. It’s a poignant moment. Initially, you can really feel their desire to find out who is responsible for their mother’s murder, but the longer it goes on, the more the story becomes a straightforward revenge drama. It becomes more about killing the killer than anything else. To get to that point, the plot requires certain characters to do things that are utterly illogical. Giving specific examples would require revealing plot points that probably shouldn’t be given away in the context of a review, but it’s safe to say that Four Brothers requires an increasing suspension of disbelief.
Singleton, at the start of the film, uses an interesting technique: he has the mother appear on-screen talking to the boys as they remember the kinds of advice she always gave them as teenagers. He should have used this throughout the movie. As the guys investigate, she could have taken umbrage at their violent (and usually illegal) tactics. She could have whispered moral advice into their ears. Or, as they get close to Victor Sweet, she could have cheered them on. Having her as a more central figure would have turned Four Brothers from a serviceable piece of genre entertainment into something quite powerful and special.
( 1/2 out of four)
Four Brothers is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.
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