Four Brothers

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During a snowy and frigid Thanksgiving in what’s supposed to be Detroit, an interracial group of adopted boys comes together to honor its slain mama by laying waste to the city’s criminal underworld. The film starts off promisingly gritty and low-key, but gets trashier and more ridiculous as it goes along. If director John Singleton had only made up his mind which style he was going for — Scorsese-like realism or flamboyant blaxploitation homage — he might have a classic on his hands. Instead, he just has a jumbled mess.

Brief flashes of Detroit landmarks — Cass Tech and the ubiquitous Michigan Central Station — set the scene in the opening credits, but the bulk of the film was shot in Canada, and it shows. In a faux-Highland Park convenience store, the saintly Mama Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan) reprimands a prepubescent shoplifter, only to be gunned down by a pair of thieves a moment later. Her grown adoptive sons include the hotheaded Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), the family man Jeremiah (Outkast’s André Benjamin, in a strong minor role), the hustler-turned-rock star Jack (Garrett Hedlund) and the oversexed Gulf War vet Angel (Tyrese Gibon).

When they converge for her funeral, the cops are already prepared for the foursome to seek retribution. The setup gives false hope that this might be a profound, meaningful look at vigilante violence or race relations or inner-city idealism. Instead, screenwriters David Elliot and Paul Lovett are obviously more interested in the brothers acting impulsively and raising a lot of hell. Certainly, any movie where a guy interrupts a Detroit high school basketball game in midplay to “get some answers” is straining credibility. The mystery at the heart of the movie is about as realistic as an episode of Scooby-Doo, and the body count that the siblings rack up over the course of the film only makes you wonder if Mama, supposedly a former flower child, isn’t rolling over in her grave.

As usual, Singleton’s directorial style is about as subtle as a jackhammer, and somewhere along the way, he gets completely distracted from his main storyline by the character of Vic, a gangsta villain played to the hilt by the usually restrained Chiwetel Ejiofor. Wearing decadent fur coats and ordering his minions to eat off the floor, Vic belongs in another movie entirely, perhaps an all-black remake of Scarface. Meanwhile, like so many other movies this year, the best scenes in Four Brothers belong to Terrence Dashon Howard, playing a dedicated cop whose friendship with the boys doesn’t stand in the way of his duties as a homicide investigator. The sound track might be filled with classic Motown tunes, but it’s Howard who gives the movie a much-needed dose of soul.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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