So much of “Four Brothers” sounds unbelievable on paper, an exercise in preposterous “gritty drama” clichÃ©s. Yet the realistic lead performances and John Singleton’s level-headed direction make it feel plausible, even likely, that all these events could happen just as they’re described. I imagine the studio figured it was getting another dumb, mass-marketable mediocrity and was surprised when the movie actually turned out good.
It is set in November and December in the mean streets of Detroit, where a beloved community fixture named “Mama” Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan) was recently killed during a convenience-store robbery. Evelyn, a warm but tough old woman, was foster mother to many underprivileged children of all races over the years, and she legally adopted four who were too incorrigible to attract other long-term parents.
Now these four, all grown and still in various stages of reform, reunite for Mama Evelyn’s funeral and, these being the mean streets, to track down her killer themselves. Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), just out of prison, is their leader; Jack (Garrett Hedlund), the baby of the improvised family, follows him faithfully. Jerry (Andre Benjamin), now a responsible businessman, husband and father, wants no part in a revenge plan. And Angel (Tyrese Gibson) is the wild card, more thuggish than the others, and a no-show at the funeral. He has a wild-card girlfriend, too, a fiery Latina named Sofi (Sofia Vergara).
These four tough guys, who joke and wrestle with a vulgar affection for one another that is quintessentially fraternal, know the local hoodlums and have little problem determining that the murder was not an act of theirs. In fact, after watching the convenience store’s surveillance tape, Bobby declares, “That wasn’t no gang shooting. That was an execution!” (Double negatives aside, one wonders why the store owner still had the tape when surely the police would have taken it.) At any rate, Evelyn appears to have been not an innocent bystander but a target. But who would want to kill dear old Mama Evelyn?
Leads are pursued and plots are thickened and a few goons are dispatched by the merciless Mercer boys in their quest for the truth. They sidestep the police (led by another of Evelyn’s former charges, played by Terrence Howard) and they harass local crime bosses. In short, things proceed approximately the way they always do in these films, with the requisite red herrings and false suspects and third-act revelations.
But instead of feeling trite and overdone, the film achieves some of superiority over many of its kind. These actors — Wahlberg, Gibson, Benjamin and Hedlund — they take the material seriously, not like throwaway figures in a by-the-numbers revenge thriller, but like real brothers who each deal with crises differently. They are as likely to argue about which game to watch on TV as they are to bicker over plans for avenging their mother’s death. Murder plots as elaborate as the one that killed Evelyn don’t happen much in real life, but these characters seem real anyway.
Plus, there’s that John Singleton magic (which, granted, does not always work, e.g., “2 Fast 2 Furious”). The “Boyz N the Hood” director is famous for knowing the minds and motives of inner-city dwellers, and “Four Brothers” (with a screenplay by David Elliot and Paul Lovett) is alive with the coldness of the streets, the sense that the police have failed them in finding the killers, the grim realization that justice sometimes is not automatic but manual. As Hollywood-ized as the details are, the overall picture feels independent and honest.
B (1 hr., 48 min.; )