When you read the synopsis of "Four Brothers", or hear about it, each of the elements seems to say "Huh? That won't work. That can't work." But combined, and married to good acting, good writing and good directing by John Singleton, the film is a surprisingly effective dramatic tale.
The key to the film's success is that it is R-rated. I don't necessarily need to see an R-rated film every time I go to the movies, but if the film is about four men trying to find the person who killed their mother, on the mean streets of Detroit, an R-rating will allow the filmmaker to be more realistic. In this age of PG-13 horror and action films, something gets lost. In a horror film, I expect to see some blood. In a PG-13 horror film, you aren't going to see a lot. In an R-rated action film, I expect to see some violence. "Brothers" is all the more realistic because Bobby and his siblings throw some punches, people get hit by bullets and they use some R-rated words. They grew up in the slums of Detroit. I wouldn't expect them to say "Gee, I'm sorry for that" or something equally as innocuous. And because the story centers on their quest to find a killer, some violence is to be expected. And delivered. Much like the recent R-rated "Wedding Crashers", filled with rating appropriate humor, I applaud this recent trend to deliver films with content appropriate ratings rather than trying to tailor the content for a kid-friendly (or a teenager friendly) rating. Filmmakers should stand by their vision and not allow it to be changed to meet an artificial rating.
Because of the R-rating, Singleton is able to allow the characters to be true to themselves. Because Bobby lives in a violent world, he doesn't have to think twice about using violence to get to his goal. Bobby is a really complex character and Wahlberg does a great job of conveying the conflicting emotions at work. Green introduces each of the Mercer boys to his partner, Fowler (Josh Charles), as they sit in their car watching each arrive for the funeral. After Green describes their various criminal records, Fowler is incredulous that Evelyn is regarded so highly in the community. "But, they are all the Dalai Lama compared to what they would've been without her influence." Bobby is clearly affected by his mother's memory and influence, especially staying in her home, but he desperately wants to find out the truth. As the oldest of the four boys, he also has to provide protection and leadership to his brothers.
Andre Benjamin is also surprisingly good. Often musicians don't make the transition to film well (Hello, Mariah Carey? Lance Bass? Justin Timberlake?), but Benjamin shows some real acting ability. He also shows his seriousness for the medium and doesn't sing during the film, or on the soundtrack. He is a family man with a wife and two daughters to think about, so he doesn't participate as quickly in his brothers' scheme. But when he becomes linked to the action, he realizes he has no choice and reluctantly participates. Angel and Jack are really Bobby's henchmen throughout, following him without objection to any corner of the neighborhood.
Terrence Howard does some good work as Green, but it is a supporting role and, compared to his other work in "Crash" and "Hustle and Flow", unremarkable.
As Evelyn, Fionnula Flanagan has the least amount of screen time, but she manages to instantly convey why this woman was so revered in the community. Before she is shot, she has a brief exchange with a local boy in the convenience store, quickly establishing her character. Later in the film, each of the boys imagines her talking to them. All of these appearances establish her as a tough, but kind woman who is only afraid when someone is pointing a gun at her face.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays one of the most chilling villains in a long time. Victor Sweet is a vicious man and will take anything and kill anyone he wants. The final scenes involving him are particularly memorable, because the outcome is unexpected, yet believable.
Singleton is clearly trying to evoke the feel of gangster films from the 70s; Wahlberg even drives around in an old car from this period throughout most of the film. The cinematography is gritty and the soundtrack is filled with songs from this era. All of this adds to the feel of the film, making everything stand out.
But the film is most successful because it doesn't pull any punches. "Four Brothers" is a gritty, violent, believable look at the revenge four brothers take for their beloved mother's death.