Hippo Manchester
August 18, 2005

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Four Brothers (R)
By Amy Diaz

John Singleton directs and Mark Wahlberg stars in the uneven but moderately entertaining Detroit western Four Brothers.

And if any town was ever perfectly cast as a lawless, live-by-the-gun town, it’s Detroit. The burned-out and crumbling landscape accentuates the look and feel of a place where justice and vengeance are the same thing and neither is to be had from the official law enforcement. This atmosphere also accentuates the rather standard Western white hat/gray hat/black hat formula that the movie’s going to use. There will be one purely good character (Evelyn Mercer, played by Fionnula Flanagan), a few purely bad characters (led by Victor Sweet, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and our heroes will be gray-hat wearing vigilantes who walk outside the law but have good intentions.

Simplistic? Yeah, but the construction of these character types is done relatively well, considering.  And it allows for lots of scenes of Wahlberg kicking ass. A little violence always helps to keep a film like this humming.

What with all the face-poundings and the natural Wahlberg look of unease (perhaps stemming from the fact that he knows that we’ve all seen him in his underwear), our buddy Mark is the perfect person to play Bobby Mercer, king of the gray hats. Bobby — like his brothers Angel (Tyrese), Jerimiah (Andre 3000) and Jack (Garrett Hedlund) — was once a foster kid with behavioral problems so serious no one would adopt him except the big-hearted Evelyn Mercer. Evelyn had something of a reputation for saving lost causes and was such a beloved figure that it truly shocks and horrifies the city of Detroit when she is gunned down in an apparent convenience-store robbery. And it’s the “apparent” part that has Bobby and his brothers flexing their muscles and talking about vengeance. They don’t believe that the police, even former Friend of Evelyn Lt. Green (Terrence Dashon Howard), have the will or the ability to find the real perpetrators. After all, the brothers are on the case only a short while before they figure out that the robbery is just a cover for their mother’s execution and that local thug Victor Sweet is probably the one who ordered the hit.

The gap between figuring this part out and the final smackdown is probably about 45 minutes long — time filled with fight scenes that are well-staged but largely unnecessary to the story, side plots that lead nowhere and some really clunky dialogue. The swearing and tough guy talk feels as though it was written by someone who’s never uttered anything stronger than an “oh, darn” and isn’t completely sure how to put insults and profanity together.

What saves the movie from being a complete throwaway are the acting skills of Howard and Wahlberg and the smart directing on the part of John Singleton. Taking mediocre components and building something far superior than the sum of their parts is a very rare skill; most directors cannot overcome lousy dialogue and a too-simple plot. But Singleton is able to get us through the rough spots without making the movie feel like a chore to sit through.

Four Brothers isn’t worth paying to see at a theater but when you run across it on HBO some lonely Saturday night a few months from now if your expectations are low, it will provide you with two reasonably entertaining hours of escapism.