by Luke Baumgarten & r & Four Brothers & r & John Singleton's ghetto epics tend to have very similar themes, possessing something like universal ghetto truths. There's the inescapable poverty. There's the unavoidable criminal life. Basically, you're poor and the only way to stop being poor is to get an education or get a gun. The latter choice, for Singleton, is always much easier -- and an education still usually requires hustling -- but the end result is disastrous.
From these two, a third universal ghetto truth arises. The people who grow up with you like this -- poor, fatherless (or motherless), surrounded by drug use and murder -- they're the only ones who understand you. This most dangerous and abject poverty creates solidarity as tight as the bonds of brotherhood.
Boyz n the Hood made the most of these truths, using them as a foundation to erect a studied, naturalistic fable of the scarcity, criminality and camaraderie of South Central L.A. It was a story about drug users and gang members, single mothers and murderers and how, no matter how hard you try to get out, you usually get sucked back in.
In Four Brothers, Singleton tries to build a similar monument to similar conditions in Detroit, one of the poorest cities in the country. He never lays the proper groundwork, though, and can't conjure up the same empathy. Unlike the Boyz, these four men spent most of their lives in relative security. When they were still four kids, they were given a loving home and free passage off the streets. Despite this, they still turned into hustlers and thieves and brigands.
Indeed, the good life they led is the entire impetus for the movie. When the mother who adopted them (a woman who is absurdly sweet) is killed, the brothers reunite to get some answers. And, in tribute to the woman who tried and failed to get them away from a life of lawlessness and murder, they begin destroying property and killing people.
Where's the street lesson in that, John?
So the ghetto epic angle dies hard and fast, but that's not what the script was about anyway. It was meant as a story of street detectives and vigilante justice, and those elements aren't so bad.
When the men aren't wrestling around or crying, to prove to the audience that they love each other and feel a strong sense of loss, the movie isn't bad. The obligatory twist is really pretty good, relying on a story element that is referred to throughout the film, but kept nicely in the background until the proper moment.
In all, there are enjoyable moments, and if you can get past the proselytizing, ignore the repetition of beating people until they talk, and excuse the men for having no chemistry together at all (never once do they act like real brothers; rarely do they seem to care about that dead mother), you can have a good time.
But for those of us who can't get past such things, prepare to leave frustrated from the phoned-in performances (not even Marky Mark, convicted of attempted murder in real life for a gang beating, can conjure any street cred). You can't help but wonder how good Four Brothers might have been if Singleton had exercised some melodramatic restraint and gone easy on the ghetto vitriol.