Four Brothers is a Western without the West, an old-fashioned "vengeance is mine" shoot 'em-up transplanted from Tombstone to the rough streets of Detroit. Director John Singleton's way with an update doesn't always work - there's a lot of hard-to-justify ancillary damage these boys never answer for, and our guys spend a little too much time restating their all-but-blood bond to one another. But most of the old formulas prove remarkably sturdy, and Singleton's uncluttered narrative style keeps things moving at a brisk pace that's hard to resist.
Essentially a remake of the John Wayne film The Sons of Katie Elder, Four Brothers is the saga of - and you probably could have guessed this part - four brothers who come together to avenge the murder of their saintly mother (Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan). The twist is that the four are brothers by adoption, two black, two white, raised by St. Mom because they were too nasty, incorrigible or just plain mean for anyone else.
Mark Wahlberg is Bobby Mercer, a streetwise neighborhood tough whose unchallenged charisma makes him the leader of this band of misfits. Brother Angel (Tyrese Gibson) is a physically imposing brute more interested in womanizing than brawling (not hard to understand, given that his latest girlfriend is the beautiful Sofia Vergara), while youngest brother Jack (Garrett Hedlund) is anxious to earn his street cred, so tired is he of being treated like a helpless kid.
That leaves responsible, respectable Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000 of OutKast), the only one of the Mercer boys with a wife, a family and a steady paycheck.
The four converge on their former Detroit neighborhood after the death of their mother, killed during an apparent holdup at a local convenience store. Something about the shooting doesn't smell right to the Mercer boys, who quickly realize that mom was, in fact, executed. Convinced that the cops are of absolutely no use (either corrupt or, at best, ineffective), the Mercers decide to solve the case themselves, and enact the requisite vengeance.
In updating the canons of the Old West, Singleton and his screenwriters (David Elliott and Paul Lovett) maintain the sense of frontier justice necessary to excuse all manner of outside-the-law shenanigans; it's hard to fault the Mercer boys for what they're doing. Still, it's also hard not to cringe when frontier justice, 2005 style, includes waving a handgun at a high-school basketball game.
Still, Singleton knows how to push an audience's buttons, and he includes a couple of bravura chase scenes that deserve the adjective spectacular. Best of all is the finale, set on a frozen Great Lake, that manages to make the Motor City seem as remote and isolated as anything John Wayne ever imagined.
As a guy no one in his right mind would want to mess with, Wahlberg doesn't quite have the screen presence or history with audiences to pull it off, but comes closer than one might expect. His sudden appearance toward the end constitutes the film's most crowd-pleasing moment. Of the remaining brothers, Gibson isn't quite convincing as a brute (though maybe that's the point, that like his brothers, we're supposed to see past the veneer), while Benjamin acts appropriately conflicted and Hedlund comes across as dangerously vulnerable.
Oddly enough, in a film called Four Brothers, the character who really threatens to undermine things is the mother, who comes across as way too saintly. That wouldn't be a huge problem if she really was dispatched within the first 10 minutes, but she keeps turning up - most embarrassingly in a cringe-worthy dinner scene during which she appears to each son just long enough to remind him of the good manners she always stressed.
Even when she's not onscreen, mom's presence causes problems for the movie. The brothers may think they're honoring mom by going after her killers, but one doubts she would approve of their methods. And yet, not once do the boys stop to consider how egregiously they are ignoring her example.
Still, Four Brothers displays a visceral appeal that's been a vital part of the American cinema for decades. Audiences have always loved seeing the bad guys get their comeuppance, and Singleton plays to that truism. It doesn't hurt that the big bad guy, played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things), is one of those crazed villains who would just as soon embarrass a guy as shoot him, a psychopathic hedonist audiences will love to hate.
True, John Ford and John Wayne did this stuff a lot better back in the day, but they're not around anymore. John Singleton is, and it's nice to see someone caring enough to keep the tradition alive.
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Garrett Hedlund, Andre Benjamin
Directed by John Singleton
Released by Paramount Pictures
Rated R (strong violence, pervasive language, some sexual content)
Time 107 minutes
SUN SCORE * * 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)