My four sons
Four Brothers brings the pain
As an unofficial remake of the 1965 western The Sons of Katie Elder, John Singleton’s Four Brothers treads an uneasy path between generic action flick and violent urban realism.
Set in depressed modern-day Detroit, the new movie is a combination of crime story and revenge tale grounded in racial and ethnic conflict and political and social corruption. That’s a patently volatile setting for a genre film, but Singleton and company use it adroitly in giving some lively interest to an otherwise formulaic story.
The fraternal quartet of the title consists of four adult orphans and hard-core types, two blacks and two whites. Each of them is an adopted son of a saintly social worker named Evelyn Mercer, and when the doughty lady is gunned down in a convenience store, the four of them are re-united, first for the funeral and then for tracking down the perpetrators of what turns out to have been something more than a random shooting during a holdup.
The brothers of the title all have street-gangsta elements in their backgrounds, but racial diversity is just one of the aspects of their individual characters. Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) and Angel (Tyrese Gibson) are still hard-boiled thugs, while Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin) has a family and a struggling inner-city business and the youngest, Jack (Garrett Hedlund), is working on a career in rock music. And the pursuit of their mother’s killers brings out the best, and sometimes the worst, in each of them.
Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, Rosewood, Baby Boy, etc.) puts this over with an engaging blend of action-movie flair and real-world grit. And he keeps it all moving fast enough that the muscular dramatic energies can stay running ahead of even the sentimentalities in the script and the hints of extreme violence in the mise en scene. The social commentary of his more personal films leaks in here in fits and starts, but the dodgy ethics of male-oriented action fantasies hold greater sway in many of the film’s boldest sequences.
Fionnula Flanagan is a formidable presence as the brothers’ mom (in flashbacks as well as the opening scene), and all four actors in the title roles make strong and distinctive impressions, with Wahlberg’s evolving gravitas and Benjamin’s emerging potential being particularly noteworthy. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Melinda and Melinda, etc.), here playing a surprisingly credible arch-villain, continues to show astonishing versatility.
One of the side benefits of the film’s extravagantly tangled plot is that there are plenty of intriguing secondary characters brought into play. Sofi Vergara (as Angel’s girlfriend) and Taraji P. Henson (as Jeremiah’s wife) make distinctive contributions to the family themes, and Kenneth Welsh (as a lawyer with a secret), Barry Shabaka Henley (as a corrupt politician), Jernard Burks (as an old friend from the neighborhood), and Terrence Howard (as a sympathetic cop) are all quietly memorable in lesser roles.