Brooklyn’s Finest was so fleeting and forgotten, it’s almost as if the film never made it to multiplexes. Released in March 2010, it scraped together $27 million, just a couple million over it’s meager budget, and was here and gone before baseball’s Opening Day that year. It happens sometimes. But make no mistake, Antoine Fuqua’s bleak and unforgivingly dark crime noir deserves much more credit than what it initially received. It is soaked in genre cliché, which was a central complaint from critics and audiences, and it’s one of the more nihilistic police dramas this side of Joe Carnahan’s Narc. But Brooklyn’s Finest doesn’t shy away from these commonalities in its narrative. It embraces cliché full force, but Fuqua knows how to take standard narrative threads and shape a compelling story in a dark, beautiful frame.
And as we travel down these roads to perdition, with three polluted souls, three policemen whose fate seems sealed, it sinks its teeth in. If you allow it.
Richard Gere is Eddie, a beat cop a week away from retirement (if you want to count the clichés, go for it. You’ll lose track.). Eddie is a hopeless asshole with no friends in the department, reluctant to spend any of his last week doing police work and instead visiting bait and tackle shops to collect gear for his upcoming fishing excursion. He is also battling some dark personal demons; he and his wife are estranged, and he spends his nights in a red-lit slum apartment with a prostitute. If these weren’t enough indicators that his soul is rotting, every morning he wakes up, he slams two fingers of whisky, and chews on the barrel of his service revolver. Remember, Fuqua isn’t going for subtlety.
Eddie is saddled with one rookie, then another when the first kid requests to ride with pretty much anyone else. This second eager rook is what sets Eddie’s arc in motion.
Meanwhile there is Tango, an undercover officer played with desperation by Don Cheadle. Tango has spent too much time undercover, the lines between the police and his criminal family blurring more every day. His wife, too, has left him, and he begs his contact in the department (Will Patton) to get him behind a desk. Tango has also befriended Caz (Wesley Snipes), recently released from prison and looking to get off the streets. The problem, then, arrives in the form of “Agent Smith,” a shadowy suit played by the great Ellen Barkin. Smith promises Tango a desk job, only if he gets Caz back in the drug game.
Fuqua and screenwriter Michael C. Martin throw these genre tropes at their film with reckless abandon. Everything that’s ever happened to downtrodden police officers in the history of crime drama is on display here – and we haven’t even gotten to the third party. That being said, the performances here are powerful, because the script desensitizes the clichés, dilutes them to the point of opening up the film for these great actors to flex their genre muscles. The greatest performance of the three comes from Ethan Hawke.
Hawke, perennially overlooked as one of our greatest cinematic treasures, plays Sal, a man soaked in Catholic guilt. He’s dedicated himself to his family, which is expanding to seven (!) kids now that his wife, Angela (Lily Taylor) is pregnant with twins. Sheesh. But the home they’re in is eaten up with mold, wreaking havoc on Angela and the babies, and Sal needs enough money for a downpayment on a new place. He couldn’t get that in time on a cop’s salary – and Brooklyn’s Finest dives into some of those politics in a compelling poker game scene – but he could get it if he swiped some drug money during one of his raids.
Sal is, at his deepest core, a good person. He’s allowed his desperation to get the better of him, and he has become a killer and a thief. But, as he explains to his Priest, “they were all bad.” It’s justification, and maybe he’s right. But he’s also a cop. All of these characters have a moral compass deep down in their hearts, but the job has petrified the walls around what they know is right. They all have a chance to tap into said morals, and they eventually do in the hopes their souls can be saved. Gere and Cheadle are great playing against character, but it’s Hawke’s turn as Sal anchoring the film.
Antione Fuqua knows what he’s doing in Brooklyn’s Finest. Again, these clichés come quickly, firing away in each and every gear of the plot. But these familiar beats create an interesting dynamic in the storytelling; the less-important plot and character pasts fade into the background, allowing the plight of these three broken men take center stage. Allow those overused tropes to sit on the sideline, and watch these wonderful actors push everything they can into the story. It’s not the fact you have clichés in your story, it’s what you do with those clichés.
This weekend, John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 hits theaters, and looks to have some of the same inertia at the center of Brooklyn’s Finest. It may suffer the same fate of Fuqua’s picture, but that isn’t always an indication of the genre creativity. Brooklyn’s Finest is cliché, but it works. It’s brutal, violent, and bleak, and it deserves a second look.