Ghosts have long appeared in works of fiction, whether that's in the form of novels, plays, movies or TV. While they're usually of the scary variety, they sometimes show up for comedy, and at others, they serve as moral compasses for those who need some guidance in their lives before doing something rash or stupid. One need only look at the works of Shakespeare for such examples.
In "Four Brothers," a ghost is similarly used, but not to impart information to the audience as oft occurred in the Bard's writing, or to warn of pending tragedy. Instead, the ghost of Evelyn Mercer -- gunned down in a convenience store by some hoods after trying to set a potential future hoodlum on the straight and narrow -- appears to remind her four adopted and now adult sons about their table manners.
While that might make the movie sound like a comedy -- and at times, there's a surprising amount of humorous material -- this is really a tale of murderous revenge, with a subsequently high body count. And truth be told, the apparition really isn't a ghost per se, but rather a series of memories in each man's head about the mother they now miss.
Yet, where is she and/or the memories of her teachings when the four decide to go Chuck Bronson on whoever gunned down their dead old mum? That's one of the questions and one of many problems facing this odd hybrid of a movie that just doesn't work as conceived and/or executed and is never believable -- ghosts or not -- for a moment of its 100+ minute runtime.
Considering that it comes from the filmmaker responsible for "2 Fast 2 Furious," that really shouldn't be much of a surprise. Yet, director John Singleton also helmed "Boyz n the Hood," his 1991 debut that not only jump-started his career, but also proved he knew a thing or two about crafting a compelling and gritty, urban drama.
Unfortunately, and despite a smattering of effectively staged sequences (mostly of the action variety), the film just doesn't work. Perhaps stuck in the mindset from remaking "Shaft," the film feels and looks like one of those urban dramas from the 1970s, and a mediocre one at that, despite being set in 2004. From the shooting style to the soundtrack and even the performances, the film feels like it's from another era. Normally, that's not a bad thing, but it only adds to the overall misery here.
The biggest problem is the uneven and undulating tone. At times, the film is that very gritty revenge flick. At others, it's a familial drama that then segues into comedy. While I understand the need for comic relief in a tale of familial loss and revenge, there's simply too much of that. Coupled with some occasionally stiff acting, emotions that never feel authentic, and sketchily drawn villains, the result is a movie that doesn't know what it wants to be and thus comes off as a disappointment.
It certainly doesn't help that the script by David Elliot ("The Watcher") & Paul Lovett (making his debut) also makes the main gist of the tale -- the brothers investigating their mother's murder and following the trail straight to the killer -- far too easy for the brothers to accomplish and thus boring for the viewer to behold.
Despite the comedic underpinnings and brotherly element that's supposed to make us bond with the characters -- not to mention the supposed cathartic element of the revenge angle -- I didn't like any of the characters and thus didn't care if they succeeded or not. In other words, neither they nor the film engaged me beyond a few occasional visceral reactions to the violent action scenes.
Stemming from poorly written characters to lackluster performances, the acting isn't anything special and Mark Wahlberg ("I Heart Huckabees," "The Italian Job"), Tyrese Gibson ("Flight of the Phoenix," "2 Fast 2 Furious"), Andre Benjamin ("Be Cool," "Hollywood Homicide") and Garrett Hedlund ("Troy," "Friday Night Lights") simply can't do anything with their parts. Even Terrence Howard, so terrific in "Hustle & Flow," feels stiff in his role as the brothers' friend-turned-cop.
His co-star from that film, Taraji P. Henson is similarly limited playing the standard-issue, worried wife character, but both look like shining stars compared to Chiwetel Ejiofor as the head villain. A standout in "Dirty Pretty Things," he's a caricature of a '70s era villain here. His demands of telling a subordinate he must sexually share his girlfriend with him and making another eat off the floor like a dog are supposed to make him scary, yet he's anything but that.
Uneven, and never believable, engaging or even viscerally cathartic in a vendetta sort of fashion, "Four Brothers" is a hybrid of a film that simply doesn't have a ghost of a chance of working.