Is it because I’m a New Yorker myself that I am generally enthralled by tales of the NYPD? Or does the apparent endless appeal of TV franchises such as Law & Order—as well as the fact that films like Brooklyn’s Finest keep getting produced—mean that lots and lots of people who aren’t New Yorkers at all are equally enthralled by this most storied of police forces? Is this why, no matter how often we get treated to tales of the NYPD, they feel fresh and exciting?
The fact is that Brooklyn’s Finest—from first-time-credited screenwriter Michael C. Martin and director Antoine Fuqua, in a sort of thematic sequel to his astonishing 2001 LAPD drama Training Day—wails with a quiet, desperate urgency amid the loud brashness that it wears like … well, a badge. Three very different cops in the same tough Brooklyn precinct struggle with the conflict between their individual senses of honor and decency, and their individual senses of what it takes to survive—psychically as well as physically—in the job. Their stories are just barely interwoven, but the deeply satisfying overall effect is one of threads in a tapestry—of the temptations toward corruption and the urge toward righteousness at war with each other, of an intractably compromised and polarized environment in which life is all about not right and wrong but “righter and wronger.”
Hooray! It’s a movie for grownups! A film out of Hollywood these days that doesn’t deal in blacks and whites, and doesn’t pretend to have answers to all the hard questions, feels like such a rarity.
Even the blacks and whites in Finest come in shades of gray. Tango (Don Cheadle) has been undercover in a powerful drug gang for too long, and he’s begging to get out; he feels he’s earned a quiet, comfortable desk job where he can wear a suit every day. The precinct is on tenterhooks, ready to explode, as the film opens. A white cop has shot to death—murdered, no question about it—a young black honor student whom the cop was trying to rob. And Tango is worried for himself, fearful that’s he’s starting to go over to the bad guys’ side out of sheer frustration—not to mention the racism he has to deal with himself, even as a cop.
Then there’s Sal (Ethan Hawke), assigned to an anti-drug squad, the kind of badass gang that flies in guns ablazin’ to clean up dealers’ operations. In one scene, Sal beats up another white officer, enraged over the other guy’s obnoxious racism—and this is perhaps Hawke’s most electrifying bit, even considering how Sal’s story is mostly about how he can’t keep his hands off the drug money, which will only end up comfy-fying the offices of NYPD bigwigs from the slush fund it’ll end up in. Doesn’t Sal need it more, what with his pregnant wife sick from the mold infesting their house? Of all the clichéd metrics of the genre avoided in Finest, Sal may well be the avoiding-est.
Oh, but Martin and Fuqua are not above having a sly bit of fun amid all the anguish and constant low-level horrors on display. Their third officer is Eddie (Richard Gere), still a street cop in uniform after 22 years, and a week away from retiring. Just like how in war movies, you don’t wanna be the grunt who shows around pictures of your girl back home—a sure way of asking to be killed before the third reel—in cop movies, you don’t wanna be the guy a week away from retirement who mentions, say, the boat you just bought and are looking forward to spending some time on. Eddie doesn’t have a boat, but Finest makes a point of letting us see Eddie buy some fishing equipment.
That’s not a spoiler. You can’t spoil this kind of movie: It’s too twisty and reliant on its complicated characters to move it forward, too dedicated to making sure you feel like you’re seeing a slice of real, miserable life. It’s a full hour into the film before Gere and Cheadle literally bump into each other, their stories just beginning to intersect, and before Gere and Hawke cross paths, too. By then, I was deeply hooked, spellbound by what disasters I thought I saw coming but was helpless to turn away from.
Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere