Four Brothers Review

From its opening scenes Four Brothers sets up its premise and style quite plainly, with precision and not a great deal of subtlety. Some might even say it is contrived in the way it introduces us to Mrs Mercer, a kindly lady with a sense of discipline, understanding and generosity, who ticks off a young boy stealing from a convenience store and sends him off with a lesson learnt and grateful it was only a nice old lady who nabbed him. When the store is held-up some seconds later by two rather more violent robbers of the type of character this young kind is likely to grow up to be himself, there ought then to be a sense of irony and sadness when the armed men blow the old lady away.

This opening scene might well have stirred some emotion in the odd viewer who is not rolling his eyes with cynicism at the heavy-handed contrivance of what we have just witnessed. Any respect that the film might have gained however from the unexpected discretion of the camera withdrawing outside the store at the moment of the shots being fired is soon dissipated by the arrival of the old lady’s four adopted sons – unsympathetic, ill-mannered thugs to the very last one - who review the footage of her execution in graphic detail captured on a conveniently placed CCTV camera, and decide that they are going to find out who did this and dispense their own, inevitably violent, form of justice.

Still, you have to give it to the Four Brothers – it doesn’t attempt to be anything it isn’t and right from the start it at least it provides you with a handy barometer of the emotional pitch and low level of expectation for what is to follow, and – unless you are unfortunate to have chosen to review the film on DVD – it gives you an early opportunity to find something better to waste your time on for the next hour and a half (yes, even wasting your time is better than watching this). If you are stuck with it, or masochistically determined to see it through, well, at the very least you know you won’t have to think too much and work things out, because there’ll always be someone there to point things out for you and keep you on track. Not that there is a great deal of complexity in the characters or the situation, but this film doesn’t like to overestimate the IQ of its viewers. So, a couple of cops sit in a car outside the Mercer house where the funeral is taking place and explain to you the backgrounds of Mrs Mercer’s adopted sons, four of the meanest sons of bitches you will ever see, too bad-ass to have been adopted by anyone else. Mrs Mercer however raised them well and instilled in them a strong sense of right and wrong and family values, but – perhaps like the young boy at the start of the film – their growing up in a rough Detroit neighbourhood will teach them only one way of justice – the hard kind. So after a bit of family bonding, around a Thanksgiving turkey dinner (the film doesn’t waste a single opportunity to hammer home the “family together” message) where each of the sons remembers their sweet old mother, they flex their muscles in a rough and tumble game of ice-hockey and then decide to get down to the business of payback.

Are you getting as tired of these urban-Western clichés as I am writing them? Well, you may get used to it if you are going to watch Four Brothers. No amount of obviousness is too obvious however not to underline even more heavily in the dialogue and the acting performances. You might think there is some degree of subtlety, counterpoint or irony at least in the use of its soundtrack, which is characterised by David Arnold’s smooth David Holmes/James Bond/Shaft pastiches and some of the most beautiful soul and R&B classics imaginable from the likes of Marvyn Gaye and The Temptations, but you’d be giving the film a great deal more credit than it deserves, since even “Inner City Blues” is used to explain and illustrate what the director and the actors themselves are incapable of expressing. The acting is woeful, Mark Wahlberg in particular looking painfully out of place and miscast (in a film that clearly has a cross-culture, casting-by-committee tokenism to appeal to the largest possible demographic), failing to carry the necessary weight of being the “big brother” of the family.

Not that any of the actors, cast in stereotypical roles, are assisted in any way by a script filled with clunky, awkward, crude, racist, gangsta-shit dialogue. Maybe they are just plain speaking guys and the director John Singleton is keeping it real with a gritty directing style that shows no flair or style whatsoever – and maybe after the like of Tony Scott’s recent frantically overblown efforts in this genre that’s something to be thankful for - because that is the only excuse for this being such an ugly looking film. A sense of style in the handling of such sensationalist material would have gone some way to overcoming the weaknesses in the plot, dialogue and performances, but Singleton seems to be completely incapable of making even the most dramatic action sequences generate any kind of tension, dynamism or compassion whatsoever. As it is, the only redeeming quality Four Brothers has - and the only reason this film scores any marks at all in my assessment - is the performance of André Benjamin, better known as André 3000 from Outkast, who is the only person who comes out of this mess with any credibility at all.

Four Brothers is released on DVD in the USA by Paramount as a Special Collector’s Edition in Widescreen and Fullscreen formats. The DVD is in NTSC format and is Region 1 encoded.

There is really not much wrong with the transfer of the film to DVD – it’s a solid presentation, showing excellent clarity and detail. There are no marks or damage on the print and the image is perfectly stable, with no sign of compression artefacts, edge-enhancement or any other kind of digital artefact. The gritty look of the film and its Toronto (for Detroit) locations is well conveyed in the tone of the film’s photography and its transfer.

The original audio track is presented with a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. In the main, the sound has requisite impact and power, particularly in the action sequences and with a fine presentation of the music score. However the centre channel sound is rather dull and muted, the dialogue often being drowned out by sound effects and even background music, which has much better range across the speakers. Additionally, there is a certain amount of roughness to the dialogue, which added to the dullness of tone, often makes it difficult to follow. A French dub is also included on this R1 release.

English hard of hearing subtitles are provided, in a yellow font, as is the Spanish subtitle option.

Paramount’s Special Edition DVD comes with a good selection of extra features with no filler material, all of which I imagine would be of interest to anyone who likes the film. There is a Commentary by John Singleton, which I’m sure is very good – Singleton speaks well in the other extra features – but watch the film again? Sorry, no thanks. In the The Look of Four Brothers (10:05), cast and crew talk about the Western idea, and how the weather and location contributed to the film’s look. There is also an interesting look into the set and costume design here. Focussing mainly on the script and screenwriters, Crafting Four Brothers (10:54) covers the films themes and how the script attempts to find an emotional heart as well as being an action film. In Behind The Brotherhood (9:29), Singleton and the cast talk about the bonding of the characters and the actors. Mercer House Shootout (4:16) looks at how the film’s action scene was put together. Nine Deleted Scenes (11:24) are included, including Mrs Mercer getting blown-away, tearful speeches at the funeral, some extra gay-baiting dialogue, poor starving children looking for the kind old dead lady who used to feed them – you get the idea… there is no commentary, but the sheer awfulness and over-egging of the scenes makes the reasons for their deletion quite evident (though what is left isn’t really that much better).

Maybe I just don’t get out to the local multiplex enough, but Four Brothers confirms my worst fears about everything that is bad with US mainstream cinema – stereotypical characters, wading their way through a stultifyingly dull, predictable plot that has been recycled a thousand times, uttering embarrassing, woeful, expository, predominately monosyllabic dialogue that insults the intelligence of any viewer. It’s not even that, as a revenge movie, this is low and sensationalist material, because they can be done with style and intelligence. Four Brothers however is a badly cast film with an abysmal script filled with stupid characters doing stupid things and a lot of meaningless posturing instead of ideas or action, all put onto the screen with no visual style or character whatsoever.

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