John Singleton made his directing debut in 1991, at the age of 23, with the astounding "Boyz in the Hood," a story of the pain and horror of life in South Central L.A. that showed the skill and insight of an established master. Since then his work has been uneven, though often interesting, in personal films like "Rosewood" and "Baby Boy;" but less successful in commercial jobs like "Shaft" and "2 Fast 2 Furious."
But with "Four Brothers," a pulp western set in contemporary Detroit and modeled by its writers after the 1965 John Wayne vehicle "The Sons of Katie Elder," Singleton has regained his old touch. His strength has always been in understanding the kinetic power of film: no one working today is better at framing shots, choosing camera angles, lighting for mood and effect, choreographing movement within the frame, and editing shot sequences for the greatest power. When he is at his best, as he is here, he can make pulp into grand opera.
"Four Brothers" begins when a saintly woman, Evelyn Mercer (played unfortunately by Fionnula Flanagan in full Mother Teresa mode), is shot down in a convenience store robbery. Evelyn has been a foster mother to four men, who now gather to find and punish her murderers. Two of those sons are black, two white; they've all taken her name, they're all brothers. They're led by Mark Wahlberg as Bobby Mercer, along with Tyrese Gibson as Angel, André (3000) Benjamin as Jeremiah, and Garrett Hedlund as Jack, the youngest.
They quickly find that there was more to the murder than just a couple of gangbangers looking for a hit, and the rest of the film takes us through a maze of crooked cops and a bent city councilman to a sadistic criminal who loves to extract every bit of dignity from those whose lives he touches. Singleton and his writers minimize the mechanics of the plot by making each step grow out of the relationships among the brothers - if it's not too much of a leap to say this, it is not unlike the way Francis Coppola made the plot of "The Godfather" grow out of the relationships among the brothers in that film.
One of the pleasures of "Four Brothers" is the quality of the acting. Wahlberg, who began as a pretty-boy fifteen years ago but has lost his looks as he's aged, has grown into a resourceful and compelling character actor who can command the screen in a wide range of roles; think of his work in "I Heart Huckabees" and "Three Kings." Here he plays a man just out of prison, the driver of the action, with a hair-trigger temper but also great street smarts. Gibson and Benjamin, the two black brothers, are not lumped together but show very different personalities. Hedlund plays the gay brother, a part-time prostitute and target of Bobby's jabs and jokes; it would be too much to ask that his character be fully developed, and it is not, but he is more than a foil. The British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as a mob lord, and Terrence Howard, as a detective, are also excellent; Singleton has made this disparate group into an ensemble whose members all contribute to the whole.
Is it fair to compare this to "The Godfather?" No, because there are lacunae in the plot and the climax is contrived and melodramatic. But "Four Brothers" has expert writing, a director at the top of his form, and acting that makes every scene a fascinating surprise. In this dull year, that's a great treat.