Part action, part drama, part western, part comedy: “Four Brothers” is four movies in one with a supernatural twist thrown in as a chaser. John Singleton excels in gritty urban films that deliberately refuse to pander to contemporary genre definitions, but “Four Brothers” also straddles the lines between gross and fine, earnest and disingenuous, good and bad – resulting in a film that has touching moments but ultimately fails to connect with any significant resonance.
It’s about – yeah – four brothers. Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Andre Benjamin and Garrett Hedlund play the adopted ne’er do wells, now grown up and headed back to their Detroit hood to mourn their mother – and then revenge her assassination-style untimely death. It’s a world of grit – crooked cops, gang lords, and contract killers control the landscape, forcing the quartet into vigilante action in order to see justice done. Over the course of two hours and a hailstorm of bullets and foul language, these bad boys seek out and kill… well, badder boys.
Translation: who cares. When killers go around killing other killers, it’s awfully hard to get emotional about it, so long as innocent bystanders are not harmed. In “Four Brothers,” the death of an innocent springboards the central action – but in the ensuing warfare, morals are trampled with the same casual disregard as lives.
Credit Singleton for hot and heavy action – a car sequence is a highlight of the film, and an all-out OK Corral assault on the brothers’ home provides enough suspense to keep pulses riding high. The devilish attitude of the characters delivers enough one-liners to keep the mood of the film afloat. And the four central actors generate genuine chemistry as they gamely take on their own memories and an inordinate number of thugs and low-lifes in the quest to mete out punishment – to themselves and their mother’s killers.
But despite all of the action and stylish imagery, Singleton failed to connect his intentions with plausible moments either in plot or in the characters’ emotional trajectories. The film jerks between high tension and brotherly affection with all the grace of a ogre, eventually undermining its own credibility. Wahlberg bears the worst of it, his weeping-in-the-mirror scene utterly, ludicrously unbelievable and his final revenge sequence, deliberately shot for egotistical purposes, merely underscores the fact that he is, unfortunately, not all that threatening a guy; but all four actors are forced to persevere through tender moments when their dead mother appears to them and reminds them to be good boys.
Those moments are laughable; had Singleton not opted to equivocate with regard to theme, he might have created a powerful film. Here he loses his focus attempting to make a violent film appeal to as many people as possible, and despite his best intentions to portray multi-ethnic brotherhood united in affection, he merely shoots up Detroit.