BROOKLYN’S FINEST is an object lesson in situational ethics played without the comforting buffer of impersonal hypothesis. The eponymous cops in question are neither heroes nor villains, rather they are basically decent guys pushed to the limits that have warped their perceptions of right and wrong as considered moment by moment. Not for them is the luxury of the big picture. The premise is succinctly explained in the opening sequence, in which two people, Vincent D’Onofrio and Ethan Hawke, sit in a car on a deserted street as the former tells the latter of how he was found not guilty of violating parole because of a unique sequence of events. Technically, he was guilty. Legally, he wasn’t. Morally, ah, now that’s where things became murky. It’s a murkiness that pervades the film, refusing to allow for easy answers, and provoking in the audience the discomfort of not being able to sit in easy judgment of what unfolds.
Hawke is Sal, a cop who puts his life on the line invading drug dens and bringing the malefactors to justice. He also helps himself to a little of the drug money. It’s money that he knows will not go to rehabilitate the junky, nor to raise his salary, rather it will fill the coffers of the elite and furnish their offices with mahogany desks and other accoutrements of luxury. He looks as his growing brood, his pregnant , saintly wife (Lili Taylor) slowly being killed by the mold in their too small house, and he can’t find it in his conscience to leave the money untouched when it could put them into a safe place. As he puts it to the priest confessing him, “I don’t want God’s forgiveness, I want God’s help.”
The other two cops in the film have come to their own uneasy truces, as well. Undercover cop Clarence, aka Tango (Don Cheadle), has to choose between the felon who saved his life, and the promotion that will get him off the street and into a desk job and a suit. Eddie (Richard Gere) is a beat cop who only has to get through one more week until retirement, a week he has to spend with new recruits, showing them the ropes and seeing himself through their innocently judgmental eyes.
Of course each will have a breaking point, and it is the strength of a powerfully written and uncompromising script by Michael C. Martin and even more powerfully engaged performances under Antoine Fuquas lean direction, that what the outcome will be creates a sense of uncertain tension rooted in searing anguish and desperate need. It will also be rooted in the individual’s unswerving belief that he is doing the right thing while also being painfully aware that there are those with whom they have relationships, people in authority, people that they respect, sometimes both, that would disagree.
It’s through those relationships that the film has its greatest power in cutting close to the bone intellectually and emotionally. Sal’s unintentional ethical dialectic during a poker game with his fellow cops that escalates into a near-brawl. Tango’s impersonal relationship with his handler (Will Patton), where the former is a cog in the police structure to the latter, contrasted with the deeply emotional bond Tango shares with Caz, played by Wesley Snipes, who imbues the palpably dangerous character with more than just menace, giving him strength, temperance, and a deep sense of honor. Eddie’s relationship is the most tragic. First seen sleeping in a bare apartment on a bed with no sheets, he is the one cut off from all human relationships, though he hasn’t realized quite how much. His one lifeline is the prostitute (Shannon Kane), who evinces an interest in his life that may or may not be as professional as her interest in his money. He is the soul most lost in this ethical fog, his self-delusion so deeply entrenched that it also takes in the audience.
God is anything but dead in this world. In mocking or compassionate or cautionary or counterpoint, depending on the point of view, the screen is littered with an omnipresent Christ. The presence of the holy provides a mocking subtext of a simple moral code and its promise of heaven religious symbolism everywhere the eye looks: icons in homes, crucifixes dangling between a prostitute’s breasts as she services a client, the earrings of a high-powered police commissioner (Ellen Barkin), whose career was made by Tango’s work, and who taunts his place in the power structure with epithets designed to set him off.
The one constant in BROOKLYN’S FINEST, is the respect it has for the position cops occupy in an uncomfortable limbo where redemption and damnation are two sides of the same coin.