Billed as a loose remake of John Wayne’s “The Sons of Katie Elder,” “Four Brothers” does have something of the Western feel to it, if “Western” to you means “Detroit” and you can buy “Marky” Mark Wahlberg as an acceptable substitute for John Wayne. Even so, John Singleton’s latest might not quite meet every one of those genre requirements, but it’s more than adequate as an old school action movie slightly updated for modern audiences.
Bobby Mercer (Wahlberg) and his brothers Angel, Jeremiah, and Jack have returned to the Motor City to attend the funeral of their foster mother, Evelyn, who – in an apparent case of wrong place at the wrong time-itis – was gunned down in a convenience store holdup. The boys dutifully put their mother in the ground, then set about going after those responsible for her murder. But what initially comes across as a run-of-the-mill robbery gone bad proves to have much deeper connections, and the Mercer boys eventually find themselves up to their necks in dead bodies, gratuitous car crashes, and public displays of firepower untainted by police interference. Indeed, “Four Brothers” seems – at times – like it’s set on some DC Comics version of Earth where law enforcement was never invented.
Then again, it is Detroit.
“Four Brothers” isn’t great art, and the story is about as unsophisticated as you can get. Sure, there’s the occasional hint that somebody might not be on the up and up, and one person in particular is so unsurprising as a bad guy you may not understand why it’s presented as a twist. What “Four Brothers” does have going for it is a retro feel drawn from the blaxploitation and revenge flicks of the ‘70s and early ‘80s. To that end, there isn’t a much better choice for a locale than Detroit, which looks like it was magically left untouched by the economic boom of the ‘90s. Singleton gives us a sense of how much their mom helped in getting them to rise above their circumstances, even if – as in the case of Bobby – they didn’t rise very far. The soundtrack is also an exercise in nostalgia, featuring the likes of Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and Grover Washington, Jr.
Most of the cast are believable enough as guys who want to open a few cans of righteous whoop-a*s on the person or persons who killed their mom. Wahlberg will continue to earn plaudits for scowling, while Outkast’s Andre Benjamin gives one of the most nuanced performance as family man Jeremiah. He’s followed closely by Terrence Howard, playing the wary cop investigating the crime spree. Garrett Hedlund (Jack) and Tyrese Gibson (Angel) don’t muck things up too badly, and there’s a howlingly funny scene in which scrawny Josh Charles, playing Howard’s a*****e partner, actually squares off with Angel, who easily has six inches and 75 pounds on him.
Some will take issue with Bobby’s constant use of homophobic slurs to insult his brothers, and there’s a pretty constant thread of (as “Commando’s” Rae Dawn Chong put it) “macho bullshit.” But this is also reminiscent of another older film style Singleton used for inspiration (‘80s action, in this case), and it’s been a while since we’ve seen a straight-up vengeance picture, especially one that features such gleefully sadistic fight scenes. “Four Brothers” is an unapologetic anachronism, and one that doesn’t require a whole lot of thought, making it a perfect accompaniment for the “back to school” time of year.
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