Antoine Fuqua's new film Brooklyn's Finest should have been a cable television series. Centered on a trio of Brooklyn cops in various states of moral decay, it has the kind of loose narrative threads and meaty roles better explored over the course of years rather than two hours. On the small screen, Fuqua would have more time with material he clearly loves, the corpse per hour count could have been mercifully stretched out and dozens more actresses could have found steady employment in roles like Topless Sex Slave No. 3 or Lady in Thong Languidly Ironing U.S. Currency.
But instead Brooklyn's Finest is a movie, one with too much on its plate. We've got Tango (Don Cheadle), working undercover in the 'hood for years and itching to get out. Then there's ambitionless beat cop Eddie (Richard Gere), who wants to take it very easy because he's got seven days to retirement (not so fast, Eddie). Finally, there is narcotics officer Sal (Ethan Hawke), who has a wife (Lili Taylor) pregnant with twins and a miniature house already bursting at the seams with too many children to count. He's desperate for more money and while he's a loyal churchgoer, he doesn't much care how he gets it.
Fuqua directed Denzel Washington to an Oscar and Hawke to a nomination in Training Day, and this movie feels very much like a return to that material, but with add-ons, specifically a third male lead. Actually, a fourth if you count Wesley Snipes, who has a smaller but pivotal part as a lusciously smooth drug dealer named Cassanova. With all these balls in the air, the viewer gets impatient for them to come together. The aim is clearly epic this film aspires to be Serpico, New Jack City and Training Day all rolled into one but by the time the dots do connect, it less a climax than a relief.
These slow-turning narrative gears gives you time to notice Fuqua's lack of subtlety as the camera panned over a stack of money for what had to be the fifth time, the preview audience I was with tittered and his love of blood. It's not enough to be gunned down in this movie; you must cough up blood as you die, a gently burbling cascade that connects with whatever goop you've got coming out of your head. By the time the last corpse slumped to the ground it started to seem almost rhythmic: Bang bang, burble burble.
Still, the movie is visually enticing and steadily engaging. The script is by Michael C. Martin, a former subway worker who wrote it hoping to win a $10,000 screenplay contest. He nabbed second place, despite lines like "These streets got an expiration date on them" which Don Cheadle, remarkably, almost manages to sell. Cheadle is intensely watchable when isn't he? but I'm not sure Tango could really have maintained his cover all those years. He's always discouraging violence or telling youngsters in the projects to go to college. The only time Cheadle convinced me Tango might be capable of bad things was when he lunged at Ellen Barkin, who plays the sadistic top brass in the police department. She is always fully clothed, which may explain why Tango calls her "Dude." She's wretched and he gets a laugh, but it's worth noting that only sainted wives and the topless rate as women in Fuqua world.
Gere is also playing against type, and he's amusing as a sad sack, especially in scenes with Chantel, the hooker Eddie is sweet on. Chantel is played by Shannon Kane, an actress of incomparable hip flexibility. (May Brooklyn's Finest do for her what Training Day did for Eva Mendes. Or at least get her some hula work.) Eddie is cynical, mean to recruits and won't lift a finger for anyone. This is one of those situations in which familiarity with an actor directs the narrative more than the screenwriter does. We know Eddie is going to get off his duff at some point; he's played by Richard Gere.
But for unpredictable, we have Ethan Hawke at his squirrelly, furtive best. While drug busts might scare the badge right off Eddie, Sal treats his excursions into the dens of drug dealers as financial Easter egg hunts, killing without compunction, then riffling around while everyone else is engaged in gunfire in the other room. Sal can shoot without ever missing his mark, he can punch, he's cool. Not movie-star cool the way Washington was in Training Day but an authentic worm, a dirty cop we can both relate to and not lionize. Hawke's reactions and witty asides are pitch perfect. He even looks dirty. I'd watch him every week if I could.