‘Brooklyn’s Finest’: Jungleland, By Kurt Loder

Ethan Hawke, Don Cheadle and Richard Gere in a top new cop flick.

[movie id="388462"]“Brooklyn’s Finest”[/movie] takes us back once more to Cop Land, where drug thugs fester and desperate lawmen fight to keep their heads above the slime. Director Antoine Fuqua has walked down these mean streets before, in the 2001 “Training Day.” Here, he’s relocated from L.A. to New York to tell a more complex tale; and while the movie is inevitably schematic in its interweaving of three different stories, it’s a blistering piece of work.

Brooklyn’s grim 65th Precinct appears to be populated exclusively by good guys, bad guys and the dead guys who got in their way. Like everyone else except the departed, narc-squad veteran Sal Procida (Ethan Hawke) has heavy problems: a sick wife, five kids and twins on the way. Sal needs to move his family out of the cramped row house they inhabit; he has a lead on a bigger place, but he needs big money to nail it down. As an observant Catholic he’s been hoping for divine intervention, but he’s running out of faith. (“Is it possible,” he asks his priest, “that God isn’t carrying his end of the weight?”) Sal hasn’t gotten a raise in four years, so the solution he’s devised is to volunteer for every major drug-den bust that comes along, and try to be the first one into the money room after the door’s been battered down. Civilians think confiscated drug money is used to finance rehab clinics or other virtuous projects, but Sal knows better, and he knows a better use for it.

Meanwhile, Officer Eddie Dugan (Richard Gere) is one week from retirement, and nervously counting the minutes. Dugan is a burnout and a drunk, an object of scorn to his fellow cops. When he sees something rotten going down — two street cruds roughing up a woman, say — he just walks away. He’s praying that nothing will happen in the next seven days that will require him to act any differently.

Dugan is fortunate not to be Tango (Don Cheadle), a cop so deep undercover he’s done time in prison (for the purpose of cozying up to drug kingpins for future manipulation on the outside). Tango wants out of scuzz-world in the worst way. But now a guy called Caz (Wesley Snipes) — a hood who once saved his life in jail — is back on the scene, and a hardboiled special agent named Smith (Ellen Barkin) wants him bad. Tango is torn: Can he maneuver enough room for Caz make one last score that’ll buy him a new start?

Hawke, Gere and Cheadle are an endless pleasure to watch. Hawke’s Sal oozes sweaty desperation; he may be a dirty cop, but we see why he is, and we understand once again the temptations that beckon underpaid police officers who have to interact with cash-fat criminals on a daily basis. Gere, using the most minimal of acting means, manages a moving portrayal of a man who has hit rock bottom morally, and whose last meager hope is to prevent his body from going the way of his soul, which is dead. Cheadle is a minimalist, too, of course — is there any other actor who can get more out of a shifting smile or a downcast glance? His Tango is a man who’s coming apart under the pressures that rule his life, but who knows that he dare not show it.

The supporting cast is all that anyone could ask. How great is it to have Wesley Snipes back in a role he can really bite into? His Caz swings from malevolent badassery to guarded warmth with switchblade precision. Shannon Kane has some startlingly carnal scenes playing a hooker with a heart of … well, with a heart, anyway. And Ellen Barkin’s top cop is as vicious as any man on the force — she’s actually frightening.

Fuqua and his cinematographer, Patrick Murguia, portray the city in all of its customary grot and menace — we’ve seen it before, but not often done better. And Fuqua, following a strong script by first-timer Michael C. Martin (a former New York City transit worker), has pulled off the movie’s conclusion — in which the three stories we’ve been watching collide in a storm of violence — in a way that’s not wildly surprising, but which provides solid formal satisfaction. “Brooklyn’s Finest” is only a genre picture, maybe, but it’s one of the best in recent years.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “Alice in Wonderland,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Brooklyn’s Finest.”

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