Who says they don’t make westerns anymore? John Singleton’s “Four Brothers” may be set in contemporary Detroit, but the tale of the quartet of siblings who take on a local crime boss to avenge the murder of their adoptive mother is like an old John Ford oater–or, to be more specific, an old Henry Hathaway one, “The Sons of Katie Elder” from 1965. And it’s great to have the genre back again, however different the trappings.
The tale begins with the death of Evelyn Mercer (the warmly ingratiating but feisty Fionnula Flanagan), a beloved community figure who’s gunned down in a corner market where she’s come to teach a grandmotherly lesson to a young shoplifter. Her funeral brings back to the old homestead the three adopted sons she’d saved from hopeless lives. Mark Wahlberg, sporting a fine combination of gruff charm and strutting confidence, is Bobby Mercer, the natural leader of the foursome, who rides–sorry, drives–back into town with a well-deserved reputation as a troublemaker. He’s joined by Angel (quietly charismatic Tyrese Gibson), a cooly tough ladies’ man who immediately takes up again with local spitfire Sofi (Sofia Vergara, okay in a stereotype role), and youngest bro Jack (a likably adolescent Garrett Hedlund), a would-be rocker the others incessantly tease. The three returnees are greeted, though not without a bit of reluctance, not only by the fourth member of the family, Jeremiah (the effectively restrained Andre Benjamin), who’s settled down with a wife and kids and is involved in local property improvement projects, but also by Lt. Green (Terrence Howard, the “Hustle and Flow” star who here comes across as a younger Paul Winfield), the honest cop who knew them all back when and tries to persuade them to let the authorities handle the investigation. (Naturally he’s partnered by a much less savory guy, a detective not unfairly named Fowler played by a smarmy Josh Charles). Naturally Bobby rejects Green’s advice, and before long he and his siblings have uncovered evidence that their mother’s death was no random act, but a planned killing involving corruption within the establishment orchestrated by brutal gang boss Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor, relishing the opportunity to sink his teeth in a part rife with malice and morbid humor). Of course there are complications as the layers of criminality are stripped away: one of the brothers falls under suspicion himself, a couple of characters the audiences have invested in meet unhappy ends, and the odds against the Mercers grow longer and longer. But a few twists make everything turn out as it’s supposed to in such asphalt-for-sagebrush tales.
What’s great about Singleton’s take on all this is that, like the directors of Hollywood’s studio age, he’s remarkably adept at pulling off the big action moments (a high-octane car chases over ice-slicked streets and a commando-style raid on the Mercer house being the most notable), but he’s also unafraid of big emotions and grand gestures. There aren’t many helmers who could make the occasional ghostly reappearances of Evelyn to her boys seem other than lame, but here they’re exactly right, even moving. And the horseplay (pun intended) among the boys is handled with just the right measure of affectionately bruising camaraderie–it brings Ward Bond and Ford’s other stalwarts to mind. All the cast get into the swing of things, with Wahlberg stepping confidently into the shoes of the likes of Wayne and Mitchum and Ejiofor having a grand old time figuratively twirling his moustache. As for Gibson and Hedlund, one might imagine the spirits of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson hovering over their roles, but they’re both good enough to make you dismiss the thought (and happily they’re not required to sing–always one of the banes of the old westerns). The picture has a slick, professional look (with fine cinematography from Peter Menzies) that makes especially fine use of the wintry Detroit locations, especially in the satisfying closing confrontation. The background score, featuring lots of old tunes, is juicy, too.
It’s as absurd to ask for character development or profundity in a film like this as it would be in any of the John Wayne pictures that it emulates. The point of “Four Brothers” is to grab you, give you a healthy mixture of action, humor and sentiment, and make you feel pleased at the outcome. It does all of those things with energy and skill, and without overdoing the nostalgia. That’s why it’s one of the most sheerly enjoyable popcorn movies of the summer.