While watching a film, I generally scribble notes on whatever scraps of paper happen to be in my pocket at the time; snippets of dialogue, themes, connections, and small details litter various receipts and post-it notes, the lines overlapping each other, my handwriting indecipherable due to writing quickly in the dark. At a recent screening of Brooklyn’s Finest, the latest film from director Antoine Fuqua, I only managed to jot down a few notes: “ridiculous Richard Gere sex scene,” “raiding the cast of The Wire,” and “Wesley Snipes’ awesome pony tail.” Unfortunately, the minimal note-taking wasn’t due to the film holding a firm grip on my attention.
And really, Brooklyn’s Finest doesn’t amount to much more than that. A narrative retread of the Guillermo Arriaga-style ensemble piece (in which various yarns converge in a climatic moment) a few years too late, the story revolves around three Brooklyn police officers, each lost within the system in their own way. The first, Eddie (Richard Gere), is a beat cop a week away from retirement who doesn’t care for his work and is in love with a local prostitute. Tango (Don Cheadle) has been working undercover for too long and starts to blur the lines between life and work. Sal (Ethan Hawke), a family man, turns toward corruption to help his quickly growing family and sick wife. The threads violently clash together at the prison-like square of project houses, which contain the central drug-trade that serves as the connective tissue of all three stories. The problem rests in everything that comes before this final sequence. We’re never able to get close to any of these characters or identify with their struggles in the way we’re clearly meant to — most of the time, it’s hard to understand where they’re coming from at all. Each character is spread so thin, so stretched out to their limits that they never stand a chance in the film.
In the middle of all this sits Wesley Snipes, who turns in a credible performance as Caz, Tango’s cellmate while undercover in prison, who is now back out on the streets and ready to jump back in the game. Snipes is looking a little older these days, and it works well — the signs of age give his character a sense of foreboding that seeps through the frame and haunts the entire film. Unfortunately, his character is used as nothing more than a catalyst to push more boring aspects of the film forward. When Snipes is not on screen, you stop caring what happens.
Snipes sits on top of a list of great actors who appear in the film in small cameos, hinting that they may play a larger role in the story, but quickly disappearing into the muddy, loose threads. Lili Taylor plays Ethan Hawke’s wife, simply, it seems, to practice her Brooklyn accent and add “pregnant” to her resume. Ellen Barkin plays a police captain who bulldogs her way through a few scenes, snarling and hissing to laughable extremes. Michael K. Williams and Hassan Johnson, both from The Wire, show up as Red and Beamer, too hoods who are nothing more than caricatures. And Vincent D’Onofrio stirs things up for, what, less than a minute? I can’t imagine what he must have done to the filmmakers to get that kind of treatment.
But most disappointing is Fuqua. After the success of Training Day (a film I enjoyed immensely), it’s disconcerting to see the director desperately trying to reclaim some of that earlier film’s spark and energy. There is no investment in the material, and it shows. Fuqua is a director capable of fine work, a director who often feels he needs to tackle big stories or compile a filmography featuring one from every genre out there. Training Day felt intimate and personal, something that is strongly lacking in Brooklyn’s Finest.