Rated: R. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. 4 stars.
Get ready for some gray area with "Brooklyn's Finest," Antoine Fuqua's intense film about a week in the life of three New York cops (Richard Gere, Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawke). They may have the badges, but they aren't necessarily the good guys. Or the bad ones, either. It all depends on how you good you are at rationalizing.
It's Eddie's (Gere's) last week as a beat cop, retiring after 22 unremarkable years. From the moment we meet him — waking in a panic, then soothing himself with a whiskey bottle — we know Eddie is an empty man. His face registers no expression, except irritation when he's ordered to train a rookie during his last week. Contrasted against the idealism of a 21-year-old recruit, Gere is cold and broken — and uninterested in anything more than finishing the week.
Tango (Cheadle) is in as deep as you can go. He's been undercover for years in a dangerous drug gang. Despite doing everything asked of him, his superiors have yet to reward him with the coveted desk job. He's at a breaking point as the line between his old life and this one becomes more blurred every day. When a snake of a federal agent (Ellen Barkin) demands he betray his closest friend in the gang (Wesley Snipes), his loyalty is challenged.
From the film's opening, we know Sal (Hawke) has already gone over the edge. But how "wrong" is it to take dirty drug money to save his family from a dangerous, mold-infested home? As his desperation grows, he becomes more and more frenzied, like a drug addict tearing through stolen purses, hungry for the cash that will save him.
These men share a badge, but otherwise they are complete strangers preoccupied with different problems — a formula that could make for a mess of a film. But Fuqua, who also directed the terrific "Training Day," takes full advantage of pacing to create parallel experiences that feel naturally intertwined. When the characters brush past each other, exchanging a look or an offhand remark, it's a sudden jolt to realize how distant they are from each other.
Screenwriter Michael C. Martin (only 28) grew up on these same streets, and his connection to the neighborhood seeps into every scene. A subway worker, Martin wrote the screenplay for a competition. He got second prize, but it was enough to get him an agent. The next thing he knew, Martin was back in his old neighborhood filming with an A-list cast and crew.
Gere, Hawke and Cheadle each craft complex characters that challenge us. And Fuqua even allows room for some outstanding female performances, unusual for a cop film. Barkin is memorably vicious, but the standout is newcomer Shannon Kane, who makes Eddie's hooker girlfriend far more compelling than it would've been in the hands of a lesser actress.
"Brooklyn's Finest" is anything but a typical cop drama. You won't get drawn into outrageous car chases or good cop/bad cop interrogation scenes. You don't even really care about the crimes. It's the characters you connect with, and their moral ambiguity makes them interesting enough on their own. Add in Fuqua's tight storytelling and a patient, powerful script, and this drama delivers a slow burn that leaves you scalded and breathless by the end.