According to the ads, the major selling point of Brooklyn's Finest is that it's from the director of Training Day. This is true! They are not lying about that. His name is Antoine Fuqua. He also directed Tears of the Sun, King Arthur, and Shooter, but never mind that. It's Training Day that Brooklyn's Finest most closely resembles, insofar as it's about rogue cops driven by personal agendas, and Ethan Hawke is involved.
What it also resembles, though, is a lot of other movies about rogue cops driven by personal agendas. Written by first-timer Michael C. Martin as an entry in a screenplay contest (here's a New York Times story about him), the film makes almost no effort to stand apart from its genre brethren, but it does benefit from solid casting and Fuqua's gritty, no-nonsense style. It even benefits a little from Ethan Hawke, which is somewhat rare these days.
Hawke plays Sal, one of three Brooklyn police officers who walk separate paths before converging later in the film. Sal, a plainclothes detective, has a family to support, including a wife (Lili Taylor) who's pregnant and in poor health. Sal has already reached the point of desperation when the movie starts, stealing money from drug busts and confessing to a priest, "I don't want God's forgiveness. I want his [expletive] help!" The priest is noncommittal on the subject of God's assistance in the commission of felonies.
Working out of the same precinct is Tango (Don Cheadle), currently deep under cover to infiltrate a drug ring run by a smooth crime boss named Caz (Wesley Snipes). Like Sal, Tango is desperate, but for different reasons: He wants to be promoted to detective, get out of the undercover line of fire, and sit behind a desk for a while. He wants to be a good cop, but this assignment is killing him. It's already ruined his marriage.
Our third subject is Eddie (Richard Gere), a uniform cop who's worn out, cynical, and has -- say it with me -- one week left till retirement. While he may once have been energized and idealistic, now he's just exhausted. He can't even be bothered to stop an assault taking place on the sidewalk in front of him because the sidewalk is in a different precinct from the one he's assigned to, and who needs the paperwork hassle?
At first, Sal, Tango, and Eddie are connected only thematically, in that each man has something he wants very, very badly. The screenplay examines the cops' differing moral dilemmas: Is it right for Sal to break the law to help his family? Should Tango -- whose job requires constant duplicity -- be loyal to a criminal who saved his life? Does Eddie have an obligation to sprint to the finish line, or is it reasonable for him to coast during his last seven days on the job? Martin treats these questions rather superficially, with a reliance on shopworn cliches; I really don't need to see another movie where a tormented cop yells at a priest in a confessional. But he also has a good ear for the jargon of cops and criminals, and he puts the characters in some life-or-death situations that are as jolting as a smack in the face.
While Cheadle, Hawke, and Gere have all been in better films than this, Brooklyn's Finest gives them each the opportunity to play a meaty, serious role. Any one of these characters -- the near-psychopath Sal, the weary Tango, the wounded and self-recriminating Eddie -- could have been the protagonist in his own film. In a way, that might have been better, since putting them all in one makes for a movie that feels longer than it needs to be. On the other hand, the movie is richer for having the multiple angles, even ones that we've seen before.