With equal measures of rock-the-house vigor and in-your-face attitude, “Four Brothers” proves usually potent and consistently enjoyable as an old school approach to what might best be described as the urban-Western genre of slam-bang, balls-out action-revenger. The tasty soundtrack of wall-to-wall Motown golden oldies is only the most obvious indication that helmer John Singleton has blaxploitation homage on his mind. Even so, pic is refreshingly free of wink-wink allusions and self-referential ironies. Paramount release should make some late-summer B.O. noise as crowd-pleasing, down-and-dirty melodrama spiked with profanely funny sass. Homevid biz will be equally muscular.
Movie buffs may suspect scripters David Elliot and Paul Lovett are tipping their Stetsons to Henry Hathaway’s “The Sons of Katie Elder” (1965) with a plot that pivots on four disparate and disreputable siblings who reunite to avenge a parent’s murder. But similarities to the earlier pic are more apparent than real, and they are forgotten entirely as soon as tough-loving Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan) is fatally shot during what initially seems like a random grocery holdup.
Effectively introed to the sound of Marvin Gaye’s soulfully swaggering “Trouble Man,” grim-faced ex-con Bobby Mercer (Mark Wahlberg) returns to wintry inner-city Detroit for the funeral of his beloved adoptive mother. Sad occasion reunites Bobby with his three brothers — hunky ex-Marine Angel (Tyrese Gibson), family man and former union activist Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin) and punkish hard-rocker Jack (Garrett Hedlund) — who also were raised by Evelyn.
Except for one or two genuinely funny gags, Singleton wisely refrains from making a big deal out of the fact that two brothers are African-American (Angel, Jeremiah) and two Caucasian (Bobby, Jack). Pic places more emphasis on brothers’ common background as throwaway delinquents who were rescued from foster-care system by Evelyn. (A nice touch: Evelyn’s generosity of spirit is seriocomically credited to her youthful hippiedom.)
To be sure, the boys didn’t exactly grow into untarnished, sterling citizens. But according to Lt. Green (Terrence Howard), a childhood buddy turned Detroit cop, “These kids are congressmen compared to what they could have been” without Evelyn.
Determined to answer blood with blood, the Mercer brothers rightly figure they’re better equipped than the cops to track their mother’s killers. It doesn’t take them long to discover the robbery wasn’t random and to deduce the robbers were hired killers employed by Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a sadistic mobster with dirty cops on his payroll and a personal interest in Jeremiah’s business plans.
Clocking in at a tight 108 minutes, pic feels neither dawdling nor unduly rushed. Singleton is unafraid to slow the tempo for scenes like a character-revealing Thanksgiving dinner (brightened with a bold touch of magical realism).
But when Singleton kicks out the jams during the hard-core rough stuff — especially during a slipping-and-sliding car chase during a snowstorm, and a full-out assault on the Mercer home — helmer delivers the goods with edgy kinetic flair. Editors Bruce Cannon and Billy Fox do standout work, and nothing ever gets too hyped, too abstract, too videogamish. Much like this year’s “Assault on Precinct 13” remake, “Four Brothers” makes a virtue of blunt, brawny ’70s-style simplicity.
Much of pic’s appeal stems from terrifically engaging interplay among four well-cast leads. Wahlberg scores as an insolent hothead who’s much smarter and more sentimental than he wants to appear. Gibson (of Singleton’s “Baby Boy” and “2 Fast 2 Furious”) strikes apt balance between smooth moves as lover (with sexy co-star Sofia Vergara) and brute force as avenger. OutKast hip-hopper Benjamin continues to demonstrate strong acting chops, while up-and-comer Hedlund (“Troy,” “Friday Night Lights”) makes a vivid impression as youngest sibling who’s still the butt of merciless ribbing.
Standout supporting players include two alumni of Singleton-produced “Hustle & Flow” — attention-grabbing Howard and vulnerable Taraji P. Henson (as Jeremiah’s wife) — and Brit-born Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Dirty Pretty Things”), totally convincing as a Detroit gangster who rules through intimidation and humiliation. Flanagan makes the most of flashback scenes.
Overall tech package suggests mid-range budget was spent smartly to achieve rough-hewn but not slipshod look during location shooting in Detroit and Toronto. Motown hits are used extensively and often expressively. At the very end, “Trouble Man” is reprised to achieve ineffably melancholy mood.