*Brooklyn's Finest (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Is it because I'm from New York myself that I'm generally enthralled by tales of the NYPD? Or does the apparently endless stream of TV shows such as Law & Order — along with films like Brooklyn's Finest — mean that lots of non-New Yorkers are equally enthralled? Is this why, no matter how often we get treated to tales of this most storied of police forces, they can still feel fresh and exciting? Or is it simply my civic pride showing?
The fact is that Brooklyn's Finest — from screenwriter Michael C. Martin, in his feature debut, and director Antoine Fuqua, in a sort of thematic sequel to his astonishing 2001 LAPD-focused Training Day — is a rarity, a film that doesn't deal in absolutes and doesn't pretend to have answers to all the hard questions. Three very different cops in the same tough Brooklyn precinct struggle to balance their individual senses of honor and decency with the realities of what it takes to survive, psychically as well as physically, in the job. Their stories are only slightly interwoven but the deeply satisfying effect is one of threads in a tapestry: of an intractably compromised and polarized environment in which life is not about right and wrong but "righter and wronger."
Tango (Don Cheadle) has been undercover in a powerful drug gang for too long, and feels he's earned a quiet, comfortable desk job where he can wear a suit every day. The precinct is on edge, ready to come apart, as the film opens: A white cop has shot and killed a young black honor student whom the cop was trying to rob. And Cheadle's Tango is worried for himself, fearful that's he's starting to turn to the bad guys' side out of frustration ... not to mention the racism he has to deal with even as a cop.
And then there's Ethan Hawke, assigned to an anti-drug squad, the kind that flies in with guns blazing to clean up dealers' operations. Hawke's Sal, in perhaps his most electrifying scene, beats up another white officer, enraged over the guy's obnoxious racism. Sal's story, though, is mostly about how he can't keep his hands off the drug money that's likely headed for a slush fund to trick out offices of NYPD bigwigs. Doesn't Sal need it more, with his pregnant wife sick from their mold-infested home?
Oh, but Martin and Fuqua are not above having a bit of fun amid the anguish and low-level horrors. Their third officer is Richard Gere's Eddie, still a street cop after 22 years, and a week away from retiring. Now, in war films, you don't want be the poor grunt who shows around pictures of your girl back home — that's a sure way of asking to be killed before the third reel. In cop movies, you don't want be the guy ready to retire who mentions, say, the boat you just bought. Eddie doesn't have a boat, but Finest makes a point of letting us see him buy fishing equipment.
That's not a spoiler. You can't spoil this kind of movie; it's too twisty, too reliant on its complicated characters to move it forward, too dedicated to feeling like a slice of real, miserable life. It's a full hour into the film before Gere and Cheadle literally bump into each other, their stories just beginning to intersect, and before Gere and Hawke cross paths, too. By then, I was deeply hooked, spellbound by the disasters I thought I saw coming but was helpless to turn away from.