Underachieving beat cop Eddie (Richard Gere, right) is a week away from… (Phillip V. Caruso / Overture…)
"Brooklyn's Finest" is an old-style potboiler about desperate cops in dire straits that overcooks both its story and its stars, with Ethan Hawke, Don Cheadle and Richard Gere the main ingredients left stewing.
It is also the latest compromised-cop drama from director Antoine Fuqua, and though there are satisfying moments to be found, at its best the film only echoes the electrifyingly unpredictable thrill of "Training Day," his 2001 breakthrough hit that earned Hawke an Oscar nomination as a rookie at risk.
This latter-day tale of the boys in blue begins at a boil, dark deeds spilling all over the place in no time and everyone perched on one ledge or another. The action unfolds over a typical week in a Brooklyn precinct whose energies and ethics are constantly tested by the neighborhood's drug-infested, overcrowded, poverty-ridden projects just teeming with problems.
But it's not work that connects our three law and orders as much as a sense of place, one of the director's strengths. So at ease is the filmmaker inside the various dens of iniquity designed to tempt our cops that the smell of those caged by circumstance fairly reeks. That authenticity is helped along by much of the movie being shot on the ground in Brooklyn -- and we're not talking the upscale Brooklyn Heights or the hipster chic of Williamsburg here.
With the local drug trade drawing cops like moths to a flame, Fuqua and cinematographer Patrick Murguía keep everything else on the dark side as they move along the streets, inside bars and dingy diners and the even dingier precinct house, capturing the swagger and the rising anxiety as effectively as the grit and grime.
Like neat little lines of cocaine, all roads lead to the projects, where the devil roams the alleys, picking through the garbage for a few good souls. That is right in Fuqua's wheelhouse, and some of the brilliance that seared "Training Day" burns in "Brooklyn." Violence rolls through like thunderstorms, merciless and bloody, and it's at its most menacing when Fuqua is working in tight spaces -- a hallway, a basement, a car.
He has a tougher time with the characters, all archetypes, tightly wound, little nuanced and ensnared in a web that pulls them deeper into the muck with each scene. Gere has the least to work with in Eddie, an underachieving beat cop a week away from his pension, trying to keep his head down and get out alive.
There's more roughage for Cheadle in Tango, the undercover slick who's in so deep he's not sure where his allegiance lies, especially now that the main wiseguy, Wesley Snipes' Caz, who once saved him, is out of jail. Snipes is back reminding everyone just how good he can be, his blinged-out drug lord as seductively charismatic as he is lethal.
It is Hawke, though, who seems the most at home as the increasingly unhinged narcotics hot shot facing the kind of temptations and pressures that come with the job. In one of his rambling conversations with his priest he snaps: "I don't want God's forgiveness, I want his help." The years have etched his face with a tortured weariness and wariness, and there are moments in "Brooklyn" that exploit the full force of its power, just not enough.
Screenwriter Michael C. Martin in his feature debut brings all the passion and imperfection of a rookie to the project, with the complexity a drama like this demands too often lost amid the cliches.
The cracks are partly covered by an experienced cast -- Ellen Barkin cruising through as an agent with ambitions as brittle as her bleached hair is a welcome sight -- but it's still a bumpy ride, leaving "Brooklyn's Finest" never able to live up to its name.