After John Singleton, the groundbreaking writer-director of Boyz N the Hood, slipped all the way to making the 2003 street-racing sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious, it was unclear whether he'd completely abandoned the gritty, urban dramas of his early career for Hollywood sleaze, or if he was just slumming for a quick paycheck. The last few months looked like good signs to indicate the former: Singleton produced Craig Brewer's debut feature Hustle & Flow, a gritty but uplifting urban drama that had much of the energy of Singleton's own early work. And his newest effort as a director, Four Brothers, looked to be a serious film about mixed-race adoptive brothers reuniting after their mother dies.
Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving. Perhaps if Singleton himself had written the screenplay, Four Brothers could have been a keen examination of race, class and family. Instead, it's a horribly crass revenge movie dusted with a thin patina of respectability that wafts away if you think about the film for even a second. It's too bad, because the concept holds a lot of potential. When 62-year-old Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan) is gunned down in a convenience store robbery gone awry, her four adopted sons, who haven't seen each other in years, return to their hometown of Detroit to mourn their mother and find her killer.
As soon as we meet the brothers, the clichés begin. Each has one defining character trait beyond which he's never allowed to evolve. There's hotheaded Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), the de facto leader; soft-spoken Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin), who's gone respectable with a family, a house and his own business; ladies' man Angel (Tyrese Gibson), a former soldier; and wannabe rock star Jack (Garret Hedlund), the youngest and most naïve. Bobby and Jack are white, while Jeremiah and Angel are black. All were adopted by Evelyn (who is white) because they were too troublesome to be appealing to any other family.
Even with the hackneyed dialogue and ridiculously saintly mother (which Flanagan plays up relentlessly in her few flashback appearances), the movie could have gone in any number of interesting directions. The brothers have been apart for a long time, and resent Bobby for his stints in jail as much as they resent Jeremiah for his legitimate success. But the family dynamics are quickly pushed to the side in favor of the same revenge plot from a thousand low-rent action movies, as the brothers discover a nefarious plot to off their saintly old mom.
The racial makeup of the family is treated as little more than a gimmick, used for a few weak brotherly insults and nothing else. The key to selling the mixed-race family would be to have the actors behave like brothers even if they don't look it, but there is little chemistry among the central foursome, who come off as business associates rather than family members who've gone through tough times together.
Things only get worse as the movie lumbers on, bringing in laughably cartoonish villains like a gangster kingpin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a corrupt cop (Josh Charles), as well as Angel's superfluous girlfriend, a horrible "fiery Latina" stereotype. The drama goes out the window in favor of ludicrous shoot-outs and elaborate revenge schemes worthy of a Steven Seagal movie. It gets tougher and tougher to sympathize with the Mercer brothers the more people they gun down in cold blood.
If there's one thing Singleton did learn from 2 Fast 2 Furious, it's how to shoot a chase scene, and at least there's one excellent example of that, as Bobby and Angel chase two thugs down a snow-covered Detroit street, skidding all over the place and offering something a little different from your standard car chase. Of course, it's also possible Singleton learned a little too much: A later shot of a luxury SUV speeding across a frozen white landscape is indistinguishable from a car commercial—and about as exciting.
The worst part about Four Brothers is how it squanders its opportunities to be more than it is. Wahlberg and Gibson have both given standout dramatic performances in the past, and with its focus on the dark impulses of revenge in a crime-ridden town, Four Brothers could have very well been Singleton's Mystic River. Instead it's just another step on his march to Hollywood anonymity.