It’s unfair, perhaps, but inevitable that every cop movie made post-“Wire” draws comparison to the now-legendary HBO series, just as it’s unfair and inevitable that every one of them falls short. Arguably the best show to ever grace television screens, “The Wire” set a new bar for subtle, taut explication that both challenged and rewarded its audience more than anything else has before or since. More than that, it proved that a serial TV show provided the best medium for the kind of long-tail slow burn that police stories, with their precarious dance between tedium and melodrama, require.
So some of why “Brooklyn’s Finest,” about three Brownsville cops at the end of their respective ropes, fails is to no fault of its own. The high stakes necessitated by a two-hour film — the quickly ratcheted-up tension; the large caliber confrontations; the big names brought in to achieve serious funding — can feel tinny and unearned in a genre that requires great understatement and even greater humbleness to avoid devolving into a bramble of histrionics and laughable postures. That said, the most egregious sins committed in “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua’s newest are specific to the film itself.
Take the plot, an unabashedly hackneyed pastiche of police drama conventions: A dirty narcotics cop with a heart of gold, Sal (an especially feral Ethan Hawke) may be dipping into forbidden tills, but it’s because he’s desperate to finance a new home for his ever-growing family; detective Clarence “Tango” (Don Cheadle) has been working undercover for so long that his loyalty is divided between the drug dealers he runs with and the force, whose racism is drawn in too-broad strokes; patrol officer Eddie (Richard Gere) has just one more week to survive on the job before retirement, but it may be one week too long.
It’s not a film’s job to reinvent its genre, of course, but Fuqua compensates for the unimaginative setups with a queasy, unrelenting progression of tension. Gone are the diegetic soundtracks of You Know What or even the more mainstream hip hop bombast that underscores most contemporary action films. Instead, violins wail, slightly off-key, in an increasingly loud, funereal procession. Interiors and exteriors alike are claustrophobically narrow and grimy, teeming with litter and Brownsville bacteria, and are filtered through a bilious green that pools in the wrinkles and shadows tattooing characters’ faces.
You know you’re in trouble when hyperbolic Wesley Snipes, as Tango’s drug dealer pal Caz, turns in a relatively understated performance. Though he doesn’t have much to work with, Cheadle does his always-solid best — widening his eyes with annoyance rather than fear or grief in a more fluid variation on his standard misunderstood characters (he’s never looked so handsome before, either).
But Gere and Hawke are so actorly. A cop who drinks first thing in the morning and has never risen above patrolman would scarcely radiate the intensity Gere seems incapable of tamping down; the man blinks as if acid were searing his eyes. And Hawke explodes in every scene, shaking with the pressures that seems to have burnt all the flesh off his skull. Throughout his career, his broody emotionality has never read as phony so much as sincerely self-aggrandizing. Here, it connects with nothing, reminding us in turn that the film does not connect with its audience. “I don’t want God’s forgiveness,” he roars. “I want his fucking help!” So do we.