Watching an Antoine Fuqua film can be exhausting; the Training Day helmer directs every scene as if it’s the most important thing that ever happened. His latest effort, the cop opera Brooklyn’s Finest, is a riot of heavy glances and portentous imagery, a near constant chorus of brooding strings and, in its latter, terminal stages, an excruciating program of narrative elongation that verges on the absurd—or would, if it were directed with even the slightest hint of self-consciousness or humor. But while Fuqua’s leaden hand seems designed to imbue the film’s trio of intersecting stories with the heft of epic tragedy, the tone of perennial brood only serves to choke the project at its roots, preventing either the characters or the setting (the film was shot at the Van Dyke housing projects in Brooklyn’s notorious Brownsville neighborhood) from emerging intact out of the director’s fevered sensibility—not to mention the screenplay’s reliance on stock situations and a grade schooler’s conception of moral ambiguity.
Screenwriter Michael C. Martin wastes no time establishing the latter quality, devoting the film’s first lines of dialogue to bluntly outlining his central theme of ethical relativism. As narcotics officer Sal (Ethan Hawke) arranges a clandestine meeting with a criminal world connection, his interlocutor narrates the events of his recent trial in which the judge explained to him that “there’s right and wrong and then there’s righter and wronger.” In the world of Brooklyn’s Finest, we’re given fair warning, there’s no such thing as a moral absolute, only different degrees of ethical imperatives. And to be sure, each of his film’s three central characters—all Kings county policemen—find themselves caught between conflicting claims of loyalty.
While Sal struggles to come up with the money for a down payment on a new house and resorts to pocketing the cash recovered from drug raids (after all, he reasons, cops are criminally underpaid and the money would be better served helping his family), Tango (Don Cheadle), an undercover officer well entrenched as a top drug dealer in the Van Dyke projects, finds himself unwilling to help arrest the dealer (Wesley Snipes) who had saved his life while in prison. Meanwhile, disillusioned vet Eddie (Richard Gere), just seven days from retirement, indifferently mentors a pair of rookies. Only after finally hanging up his badge does he discover his purpose, turning vig to take down a ring of sex slavery, his crusade complicated by the fact that—dig the irony!—he himself regularly visits prostitutes.
It’s hard not to get caught up in Fuqua’s headlong rush and for a while it seems like the director’s tone might not be wholly inappropriate to the material, especially during a shit-kicking police raid in which the dank interiority of an apartment building gives way to astonishing light as Hawke chases an escaped perp out of the building and down an “el” canopied street. But before long the schematic nature of the plotting—compounded by the script’s liberal employment of cheap ironies and rank clichés—takes over, and rather than raise the trite material into the stuff of epic pulp, Fuqua’s strategy of amplification only throws into relief its lack of imaginative substance. And just in case there was any suspicion that the director took his project’s moral inquiry seriously, it’s answered in the negative by an endless final sequence in which through a colossal feat of overdetermination all three cops show up at the VD projects at the same time and, rather than allow the characters to work out their personal dilemmas, Fuqua involves them instead in a trio of sub-Scorsese bloodbaths even more ludicrously elongated and lacking in what would be a welcome self-consciousness than the final showdown in Training Day. Still you can’t blame the filmmaker altogether for abandoning Martin’s dim-minded ethical accounting. After all, that might be the only good sense he shows.