"Four Brothers" is a typically energetic urban action melodrama, offering car chases, beatings, murders, a dog mauling, attempted arson, frequent double-crosses and pitched street battles worthy of Fallouja. But what's not on the screen turns out to be more interesting than what is.
Although director John Singleton is no stranger to studio productions — his "2 Fast 2 Furious" grossed more than $200 million worldwide — "Four Brothers" shows signs around the edges that he wishes there were other ways to make movies in today's Hollywood than orchestrating a reign of terror.
The kind of film whose entire story arc fits neatly into its nine-word tag line — "They came home to bury mom ... and her killer" — "Four Brothers" opens with the death of said mom, Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan), gunned down during a holdup at a Detroit convenience store.
A specialist in helping troubled kids find adoptive homes, someone who sanctioned tattoos but drew the line at elbows on the table, Evelyn singled out the four worst cases she came across for adoption herself. It's this multiracial quartet that gathers for her funeral and, if need be, a little bloody revenge.
Leader of the pack is Bobby (a forceful Mark Wahlberg), once known as "The Michigan Mauler," the kind of ex-con, someone says, who was not let out early for good behavior. The middle brothers are Angel (Tyrese Gibson of Singleton's "Baby Boy"), the ladies' man of the quartet, and Jeremiah (Outkast's Andre Benjamin), who stayed in Detroit, worked for a union and has dreams of helping with urban renewal.
The youngster of the bunch is Jack, a would-be rocker played by Garrett Hedlund, a long way from his debut as the comely Patroclus opposite Brad Pitt's Achilles in "Troy." He is also the object of some sour and savage teasing — all in good fun, you understand — about his putative homosexuality that is one of the several unpleasant touches in the film's David Elliot-Paul Lovett script.
The brothers otherwise share an affectionate camaraderie, and even if they are not model citizens, says police Lt. Green (an underutilized Terrence Howard), "they're congressmen compared to what would have been."
Congressmen or not, the brothers soon come to believe, as did the brothers in this film's progenitor, the John Wayne-starring "The Sons of Katie Elder," that the death of their parent was not what it seemed. Much mayhem follows, as does the introduction of "Dirty Pretty Things' " Chiwetel Ejiofor as local hard guy Victor Sweet.
Clearly, no one held a gun to Singleton's head, so to speak, to take on this material, but there are signs that violence alone is not enough for him. "Four Brothers" takes some pains to add an emotional overlay to the proceedings, to connect, albeit roughly, with the notion that a character's humanity can be part of the on-screen equation.
Admittedly burned by the failure of his earnest, socially conscious "Rosewood," Singleton is clearly happy to be able to direct the kind of broad stroke action films that parallel the westerns he's talked about enjoying as a kid. But if he could find a halfway point between the failed seriousness of "Rosewood" and the pulpiness of "Four Brothers," a point not unlike his Oscar-nominated debut, "Boyz N the Hood," perhaps he and his audience would be happier still.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content
Times guidelines: Large amounts of broadly done violence, especially nasty language
A Paramount Pictures release. Director John Singleton. Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Screenplay David Elliot and Paul Lovett. Cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. Editors Bruce Cannon, Billy Fox. Costumes Ruth Carter. Music David Arnold. Production design Keith Brian Burns. Art director Andrew Stearn. Set decorator Clive Thomasson. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.In general release.