John Singleton’s Four Brothers begins life with the premise and promise of a realistic post-noir, set in the contemporary Detroit wastelands and revolving around an outrageously unjust murder and subsequent family vendetta. But we quickly lapse into telescoping condescension when the saintly gray-haired Mom (Fionnula Flanagan) is introduced giving a pre-teen shoplifter a dose of crinkly-eyed tough love—the tone and dialogue are strictly Aaron Spelling. After she’s shot by holdup men, we arrive at her wake and meet not only her four adopted sons, but two cops (Terrence Howard and Josh Charles) providing bullhorn exposition for them as we go. There’s Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), a violent-tempered, ex–hockey star “fuckup”; Angel (Tyrese Gibson), an ex-hustler, ex-marine “fuckup”; Jack (Garrett Hedlund), a would-be-musician “fuckup”; and Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin), the local family man and, evidently, not as prone to fucking up. Adopting them from the hundreds of foster kids she helped because no one else would, Flanagan’s Mom was 100 percent saint, and the sons are now looking for vengeance.
What results is unremarkably schizophrenic—half gritty sojourn into the inner-city furnace, half Hollywood brain death. The mystery unravels in obscure clumps, the climactic plot to trounce the villains (mainly Chiwetel Ejiofor, growling and yowling like a Batman villain) is so cleverly arrived at off-camera, and no emotional moment leaves the screen without being pounded like beefsteak. (The Motown landscape is formidable, even if it was shot mostly in Toronto.) But Four Brothers has odder incongruities than even the casting of nebbishy Charles as a scary-tough dirty cop—like the idiotic way our heroes sleuth out the story’s mystery by executing, or trying to kill, anyone who might be able to answer their questions. That the script jokes about it, and then absolves the brothers by ensuring after the fact that their victims deserved to be whacked, casts an awkward chill over our sympathies.
More’s the pity, because Singleton and his actors try to capture the brothers’ antagonistic camaraderie in real terms—teasings, fights, a sense of shared history—and more often than not the cast is up to the task. Benjamin and Gibson are thoroughly relaxed, and even the winsomely pale Hedlund, forgotten already as a whining Patroclus in Troy, seems to fit into this family’s motley scheme. But the script is too cheesy, too much of a school yard knee jerk toward pointless gunplay and Inspirational Deaths to leave it at that—imagine what a little earthquake the movie would have been if it had. With Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and Four Brothers, Singleton has essentially outed himself as the formulaic pulp hack he’s been since Boyz n the Hood, rather than the South Central wunderkind Hollywood took him for.