A cop movie that opens with a shot of a cemetery - OK, you know where this one's going. But Brooklyn's Finest, as dark as the muck in the Gowanus Canal, takes the familiar stuff of detectives on the take, of worn-out veterans whiling their last days with cynical indifference, with undercover cops seduced by drugs and gangland brotherhood, and weaves a nasty nail-biter of a tale.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, whose Training Day elicited fine, against-the-grain work from Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, Brooklyn's Finest owes much to the New York police dramas of Sidney Lumet: Serpico, Q&A, Prince of the City. From a screenplay by first-timer Michael C. Martin (up from Brooklyn housing projects, a finalist in a screenwriting contest - hence this script), Fuqua's sucker-punch of a picture is taut noir of the first order.
Hawke reteams with Fuqua here, but this time the actor isn't any idealistic rookie. He's Sal, a desperate narc with five kids and a wife (Lili Taylor), and she's pregnant again - with twins. He's sunk in debt, living in a dilapidated house plagued by wood mold, and he skulks off to confession (he's Catholic, he's Italian) to tell the priest that he's just done a very bad thing. (How bad? That depends on how you feel about Law & Order: Criminal Intent hambone Vincent D'Onofrio.) And then there's all this drug money lying around. Shouldn't some of it go to him, to buy a decent place to live?
Cut to Don Cheadle, starring as Tango, an undercover man with diamond ear studs and a flash penthouse. Tango is so deep into his double life that he's becoming the guy he's supposed to be busting: bonding with the area's biggest dealer, Caz, played with a percolating cool by Wesley Snipes. We've seen Tango before in decades' worth of crime pics (Johnny Depp's Donnie Brasco rooted around in this dilemma of duplicity, powerfully), but Cheadle's urgency and uncertainty feel real. As he tells his departmental handler (Will Patton), he needs to get out, fast, or else he's going to be lost.
And then there's Eddie (Richard Gere), the 65th precinct's tired, troubled veteran. He's got seven days left before retirement, and not much more than his bottle of Irish whiskey (he keeps it bedside) and a dead-end relationship with a hooker (Shannon Kane) to look forward to. Told to partner with a new recruit for the last week on the job, Eddie is, to put it mildly, a reluctant mentor. And when a racially charged argument in a corner bodega gets out of control, well . . . things are not good.
The title Brooklyn's Finest is drowning in irony, of course, but Fuqua's moves are less obvious: His film is classical and gritty, his violence makes you want to duck and run. Hawke, Cheadle, and Gere (no vanity, no swagger) are all very good, even if the guys they're playing are, if not bad, then tragically corrupt, or corrupted.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.