Brooklyn’s Finest (***1/2)

By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic

There are only a few authentic, high-quality New York City cop films: “Serpico,” “French Connection,” “Prince of the City,” “Narc,” “Training Day.” Now “Brooklyn’s Finest,” a thoroughly engaging, nerve-fraying ode to wayward cops, can be added to that rarefied list. Graphic script, instinctive direction, engaging acting, superior production quality, dire emotions… This film has it all.

Three flawed Brooklyn policemen struggle with their jobs and personal lives during a major drug sting. Eddie Dugan (Richard Gere), 50ish, is seven days away from retirement and can smell the finish line. Two enthusiastic rookie cops (Jesse Williams, Logan Marshall-Green) are assigned to him and are as eager to fight crime, as he is to avoid it, “This job takes enough out of you. Don’t take it home.” Thirtysomething-year-old Sal Procida (Ethan Hawke) lives in a rundown house that’s overrun with a mold that is affecting his pregnant wife (Lili Taylor) and his five kids. He’s got to buy a new home fast, and the money he eyes during drug busts looks awfully tempting. Clarence “Tango” Butler (Don Cheadle) is a 40-year-old undercover narc who’s done time in prison to sure up his street credibility. While in the pen, a drug kingpin named Caz (Wesley Snipes) saves his life. Back on the streets, the line between law-enforcement and criminal behavior has blurred for Tango.

Three separate lives. Three strangers. Three destinies. One compelling script that binds the trio together like gum on the bottom of a cop’s shoe. Credit first-time screenwriter Michael C. Martin for the distinct, well-developed characters, their life-altering storylines and some of the most compelling inner-city dialogue ever written. A drained, desperate and frustrated Tango demanding a promotion from his Lieutenant, “I’m f—– in the game. You gotta get me out of here. Desk, suit, tie. I need that sh- like water.” An anguished Sal begging his priest in a confession booth, “I don’t want god’s forgiveness, I want his f——- help!” Martin grew up in the Brooklyn projects and his experience is on every page of a gripping script that gets you inside the minds of these distraught urban soldiers.

Director Antoine Fuqua, who took stark realism to a new standard with “Training Day,” proves that he is the king of policeman-gone-wrong crime/drama/thrillers. He gets complex performances from his entire cast, stages action scenes with kinetic zeal, pays rapt attention to subtext and his ability to enhance personal drama is exceptional. For two hours he holds your attention so tight you’re afraid to blink because you might miss a bullet. Fuqua’s directing prowess is on par with that of Martin Scorsese or Sidney Lumet.

Of course it helps a writer’s cause when a cast, crowned by Gere, Hawke and Cheadle, adds life to dialogue and dimension to characters. Gere would not be the obvious choice for a rundown, long-in-the-tooth police vet, but he brings a certain melancholy to Eddie that makes you hope he will snap out of his downward spiral. Hawke, who gets better with every movie, makes his evilly pragmatic character sympathetic. Cheadle, the chameleon actor, lets Tango’s despair and ambivalence rain on you. Wesley Snipes makes a stirring acting comeback as the charismatic Caz. And though testosterone run amuck drives the cast, two actresses steal scenes too. Shannon Kane (“Entourage”) plays a beguiling prostitute that softens Eddie’s steel heart. Ellen Barkin, as a rogue agent who threatens Tango’s career and throws a punch at him, is venomously lethal.

Cinematographer Patrick MurguÌa is as adept with the eerie dark lighting in Sal’s basement laundry room as he is with broad daylight assassinations. Production designer ThÈrËse Deprez’s filthy tenement apartments look so real you feel like a roach is climbing up your back. And Barbara Tulliver’s editing is as tight as the band on a pimp’s hat.

Watching the dirty badges in this gritty urban tale lose their shine is absolutely riveting.