Four Brothers (2005): Singleton’s Remake of John Wayne Vehicle, Sons of Katie Elder

In Four Brothers, John Singleton tries to combine a gritty crime drama with an emotional family saga, but under his strained direction the different genres don’t gel.

Loosely based on “The Sons of Katie Elders,” a far superior Henry Hathaway-John Wayne Western, “Four Brothers” is a diffuse, rambling, lousily made urban revenge tale that’s excessively violent.

Lacking focus, energy, and rhythm, the tale goes from violent set pieces to quieter domestic scenes and back, and by the time the saga reaches its workable conclusion, it’s almost too late for the audience to feel any affinity for the story or characters.

David Elliot’s and Paul Lovett’s patch-like script is a modernist take aiming to prove that adoptive families can be more intimate and binding than biological ones. In this respect, “Four Brothers,” like other Singleton pictures, is a socially-conscious yarn, meant to show that the title’s brothers are bound by ties thicker than blood–despite being adopted, of different races, and with different personalities.

The story begins in a grocery store, where an elderly woman, Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan), is innocently caught up and killed at a senseless holdup. That the accident occurs right after she gives a lesson to a young black kid for stealing a candy makes her death all the more poignant.

The tale then introduces the four Mercer brothers: hotheaded Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), ladies man Angel (Tyrese Gibson), family and businessman Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin), and hard rocking Jack (Garrett Hedlund). The brothers reunite after a long time with one goal on their minds, avenging their mother’s unjust death, for which they intend to take the law into their own hands.

The eldest, Bobby, who’s responsible for the scheme, feels like he owes it to his mother to reunite his brothers and avenge her death. Soon, however, all four realize that their ways of doing business have new, unanticipated consequences.

The Mercer brothers are tough, street-smart guys, who would probably be dead or in jail if it were not for their foster mother. Having gone
their separate ways as adults, they now realize the positive impact that their mom has had on their lives. Through flashbacks, we get to see the mother’s interaction with each of the quartet. Evelyn was a woman who only tried to do good in her life, and the only person who ever believed in the future of her sons.

Even in a lawless society, such as urban Detroit, where the movie takes place, there’s a code, a set of rules people live by. Wrongs still have to be made right. The Mercer brothers—two black, two white—are linked by their adoptive mother. Indeed, what unites the brothers is the code instilled in them by their decent mother. Evelyn is the only glue that held the boys together, and now that she’s gone, they need to find their own ways to maintain their familial bonds.

You get the feeling that none of the quartet has ever entirely embraced the idea that they were brothers, or absorbed the notion of family responsibility, It’s only when theyre stripped of their emotional guard by their mother’s death, that theyre able to discover how much they care about each other. Indeed, as they avenge her death, they grow closer as brothers.

Bobby is an ex-hockey player who never made it to the pros, but he still loves this sport. When they are not bickering, or engage in violent acts, the brothers use hockey to blow off a little steam, as, for example, after a Thanksgiving dinner, in a ritual they call the Turkey Cup.

In these ritualistic bonding sessions, Singleton pays tribute to Howard Hawks-John Wayne’s Westerns, particularly “Rio Bravo” and “El Dorado,” which exhibited wonderful male camaraderie. But Singleton’s handling of these scenes is heavy-handed and clumsy, lackinh Hawks’ expertise in establishing warmth intimacy among men.

Except for the notion of mixing black and white characters as siblings, “Four Brothers” is an old fashioned film that could have been made in another era. Unlike some of Singleton’s previous films, specifically Boyz N the Hood (still his best picture by far), “Four Brothers” has little direct or immediate link to the zeitgeist.

Problem is, the brothers are schematically constructed, so that each will have a different personality and lifestyle. Eldest Bobby is a tough, non-nonsense guy, skilled in the ways of the streets. He’s a guy who doesn’t listen much to reason, but he has sort of internal moral compass, based on a strong if primitive sense of justice. With family to support, Jeremiah is the most grounded of the brothers, whereas the charismatic rogue Angel is a bit crazy, and Jack is simply too young and inexperienced in the ways of the world.

The women’s and cops’ roles are based on a dichotomy. Lt. Green (“Hustle & Flow”‘s Terrence Howard), a childhood friend of the Mercers, has made good on the police force. Green used to spend a lot of time in the Mercer house, playing hockey with the kids, but when they grew up, their lives went into different direction. Green is contrasted with his white Detective Fowler (Josh Charles).

Despite the brothers’ intent to take the law into their own hands, Green still has a deep affinity for them. He immediately grasps the Mercers’ firm determination to stand and fight for the righteous, and to restore the family’s name. Green sees them thrust back into a dark place, huddled together to find some emotional warmth, even if they don’t know how to show it.

The film’s two women are also opposites. Sofi (Sofia Vergara), Angel’s loud on-again, off-again girlfriend, sticks around despite the fact that she is not welcomed by the brothers; her presence seems to brings their worst, sexiest instincts. In contrast, Camille (Taraji P. Henson), as Jermeiah’s loyal wife, tries to keep her husband on the straight-and-narrow path abandoned by his brothers.

The film’s vicious villain is Victor Sweet (British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), a gangster who rules Detroit’s underworld with a firm and nasty hand. Coming from the same place, Sweet and the Mercer boys have known each other for a long time, and now theyre embroiled again over the death of Evelyn Mercer.

Visually, just as narratively, the movie is inconsistent, too. Shot in the winter by cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr., the film features some stunning set pieces. The brutal climax, which is set in Detroit’s snow-covered wastelands with only two cars in the all-white frame, brings to mind the Coen brothers’ “Fargo.”

Though young (37), Singleton seems to have lost his penchant for feeling the pulse of today’s audiences. Examining the career of Singleton, I’m struck by the arbitrary choice of subject matter. Fifteen years ago, Singleton exploded on the Hollywood scene with the powerful “Boyz N the Hood,” a gritty inside look at the street life in the gang-infested ghetto of South Central. At age 24, Singleton became the youngest person to be ever nominated for a directing Oscar; he received another nomination for his screenplay.

His next effort, “Poetic Justice,” despite the presence of singer Janet Jackson and the poetry of Maya Angelou, was a critical and commercial flop. “Higher Learning” was a mediocre issue-oriented melodrama, but “Rosewood,” which failed to find its public, represented a return to form. He then followed with a stylish but pointless remake of the blaxploitation “Shaft,” and a sequel, “2 Fast 2 Furious,” which became his most commercial work to date. And now he has made a loose remake of a 1965 John Wayne vehicle!

“Four Brothers” is an action picture with an emotional core that’s neither too deep nor too engaging. The script tries to work on different levels, as character-driven drama with violent action, but the different elements don’t gell. The brothers’ attempts to track down the killer are mildly involving, but with all the violence and the dead bodies that keep piling up, the movie is dull.

Singleton fails to elevate “Four Brothers” into a higher realm of storytelling, and thus the movie is just a hybrid of a straight and claculated genre items.

For the Record:

In Henry Hathaway’s 1965 Western, “The Sons of Katie Elder,” John Wayne plays John Elder, the eldest and toughest of four gunslinging brothers: a cardsharp and conman (Dean Martin), a quiet one (Earl Holliman), and the youngest and future hope of the family (Michael Anderson, Jr.). The four brothers get together at the funeral of their mother, a noble and brave woman who had died in poverty. Upon reunion, they set out to investigate the death of their father, which occurred on the night he supposedly gambled away his ranch to the town’s boss. The sheriff warns the brothers to stay out of trouble, which of course does not help. There are further complications, including a vicious attempt to incriminate the brothers for the sheriff’s murder. After two brothers are killed and one is wounded, Elder becomes even more committed to avenge the deaths in his family. He tells the deputy sheriff in a characteristically macho Wayne manner: “This is something I have to do for myself!” After killing the boss and clearing the family’s name, Elder fulfills his other promise and sends his younger brother to college, so that he won’t follow in the family’s tradition.