The four brothers in Four Brothers behave just like â€¦ well, four brothers. When the Mercer boys reunite in Detroit for the funeral of Evelyn (Fionnula Flanagan), the woman who adopted them all, Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), Angel (Tyrese Gibson), Jeremiah (AndrÃ© Benjamin) and Jack (Garrett Hedlund) interact with the kind of coarse familiarity you’d expect from siblings. Bobby constantly questions Jack’s masculinity. Angel and Jeremiah wrestle on the floor after flicking objects at one another. Angel casually walks in on Bobby while he’s sitting on the toilet. For large chunks of the film’s first hour, the dynamic of shared history and macho one-upmanship feels thoroughly real.
If anything else in Four Brothers had been as remotely authentic as the fraternal sparring, director John Singleton might have had a truly exceptional character drama on his hands. But character quickly becomes an afterthought as the real plot kicks into gear: The Mercer brothers find evidence that the convenience store holdup in which Mrs. Mercer was killed may have actually been an execution, with her as the target. And four guys as hardened as this quartet aren’t about to let anyone get away with plugging their mama.
It would have been frustrating enough if Singleton had merely used Four Brothers to traffic in the blaxploitation tropes he celebrated in his remake of Shaft. You’ve got a seriously bad bad guy in gangster Vic (Chiwetel Ejiofor). You’ve got protagonists who'in their own brutal, take-no-prisoners way'aren’t much better. You’ve got good cops and corrupt cops. And you’ve got the momentum of a simple whodunit crime plot holding together gritty action sequences, with little room for nuances of character despite a talented cast including Wahlberg, Ejiofor and Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow).
What’s worse yet is that the film disintegrates into such a collection of lazy filmmaking clichÃ©s. What happens after Angel loudly protests to his brothers, “I’m not going to see that girl?” Yep'an immediate cutaway to Angel seeing that girl. What onscreen image accompanies the lyric “everyone knows that a man ain’t supposed to cry” from The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain?” Yep'a man crying. The sequence portraying the holdup cheats by having the killers behave as though they had no idea Evelyn was in the store. And despite the fact that several of the brothers have not been around for some time, the walls of mom’s house are decorated with studio portraits of all four men that look like they were taken yesterday. So much for real.
Perhaps most frustrating of all is what a missed opportunity Four Brothers is for compelling psychology. Their sainted mother would have been the first to forgive her killers, Jeremiah reminds Bobby early in the film; she took in four kids that no one else would adopt because she wouldn’t give up on the possibility that they could get straight. But the script by David Elliot and Paul Lovett glosses over the fact that only Jeremiah has gone legit, and never explores the tension between Bobby’s drive for vengeance and the beliefs of the mother he claims to love. Four Brothers takes for granted that Bobby is a lost soul'it almost celebrates the anti-heroism of it all.
When it’s all about the action, Four Brothers does at times deliver some visceral satisfaction. A guns-blazing car chase gives the film a kinetic charge, blasting over icy roads and turning skids into something almost balletic. And there’s a tensely-constructed sequence'in which thugs assault the Mercer family home'that adds up to more than just automatic weapons rattling away. But every time you think Four Brothers is on to something gripping, it does something else stupid, like turn the climactic confrontation between Bobby and Vic into a boxing match on a sheet of ice. Singleton appears to give up on everything except the clunky satisfactions of his comeuppance-driven plot machine, abandoning the little truths that make stories memorable for a bunch of stuff that just makes you want to go, “Oh, brother.”
Scott Renshaw reviews new movies on Fox 13’s Good Day Utah Thursdays in the 7 a.m. hour.