August 14, 2005

Four Brothers

Four Brothers is not the type of film I should have liked. I have problems relating to the urban/"street" culture to begin with, and I hate brainless shoot-em-ups. So the proposition of a brainless urban shoot-em-up didn't exactly fill me with anticipation. Yet slowly but surely the film grabbed my attention. By the time I'd made it through the early scenes of overly forced camaraderie and fell into the beat of the rather hit-or-miss banter, the film had me fully engaged for the duration.
This film isn't shy about its influences. There's a shot in the film's climax that serves as a staggering parallel of Omar Sharif's entrance in Lawrence of Arabia. A dozen other film critics have noted that it's inspired by the 1965 John Wayne western, The Sons of Katie Elder. I haven't seen that film, but a Google search for its plot summary revealed almost exactly the same plot. Its roots as a Western validate the use of such a larger-than-life introduction, and begin to justify a body count that surely wouldn't go un-investigated by the rules of the real world. In many ways, these boys are also on the only marginally civilized frontier.
Placing it within a Western genre framework also makes it far easier for me to get my bearings in such an alien environment. These four brothers are motivated by the same things that have motivated cowboys since Westerns started being put to film. Mark Wahlberg plays Bobby, a character that exists perpetually upon the uncivilized edge. Andre Benjamin (of Outcast fame) plays Jeremiah, the one who went straight and settled-down; the voice of caution and responsibility. Garrett Hedlund as Jack (the youngest) tags along, spewing exposition and generally being the likable target of everyone's jokes. All three serve their roles admirably, but being archetypal characters they are limited in their ability to truly expand into three dimensions.
The last brother is Angel, played by Tyrese. His introduction didn't lead me to expect much: at first glance, he is the very image of the urban black stereotype, right down to the Latino girlfriend that he ignores and oppresses in alternating doses. I expected him to fall into line with Bobby, but no — he has methods and motivations of his own. The way he investigates the troubling events swirling around the four of them, and the care he takes in accounting for and containing the others' colourful reactions to what he discovers is one of the film's small pleasures. It is a roles of some depth on a canvas otherwise painted with broad strokes.
Four Brothers is a schizophrenic experience, but that's a large part of how it surprises. The action set pieces are outrageous to the point of absurd, like an icy car chase through the street of Detroit during which Bobby exclaims every "gritty" urban catch phrase he can possibly invent. The family scenes can become so cloying that the mood shifts from touching to laughable. The villain of the piece enforces humiliation so cruel and inventive that the Joker would be put to shame. And yet at the centre of the film are four characters that I couldn't help but invest myself in, and whose outcome I couldn't stop myself from caring about. That, to me, is the mark of skilful storytelling. ()


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