casWhere have you gone Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey? This is the question that John Singleton is trying to answer with his new film, Four Brothers. Going against the grain of current films, filled with wimpy girly-men action stars like the feyer than Wray Orlando Bloom, Singleton has put together a hard bitten tough guy film that could just as easily have been set on the dusty streets of Tombstone.

The titular four brothers are, you will quickly note, of different races. That’s because they’re not biological brothers. They were adopted by the sweetest old lady in Detroit, a woman who served as foster mother to hundreds of kids in need. These four just happened to be the worst of the worst, the ones that no one else would take so she held on to them. Even with the love of the sweet old lady, the four grow up to be fuck ups of various types, but nowhere near the criminals they could have been.

One night the old woman is shot dead in what seems to be a standard grocery store robbery. The four brothers come home to pay their respects, returning from their various lives, and it doesn’t take long for them to come to the conclusion that the Detroit police are useless at best, utterly corrupt at worst, and to take vengeance into their own hands. They will beat, shoot and cripple every person who had anything to do with their mother’s death, or anyone who stands in their way.

Look, I’m not going to tell you that Four Brothers is a good movie. It’s well made, and it’s funny when it should be, and it’s exciting when it should be, and the four brothers have great interactions. It’s a movie that plays to your worst impulses, that takes an audience and ratchets up its bloodlust until it’s hooting and hollering when our heroes murder people – admittedly bad people – in cold blood. And you know what? That’s not a bad thing.

This year has seen a number of films that feel like throwbacks to the 70s, and I like that. Action films got derailed in the 80s – each one tried to be bigger than the last, to blow up more things or to have the most incredible set piece ever, smashing the most cars or something. Four Brothers isn’t competing at that level. Why blow up immense amounts of real estate when you can drop a guy out of a sixth floor window and give him a compound fracture? Now that’s cinema, motherfuckers.

 Four Brothers would be nothing without three key performances (five if you count Sofia Vergara’s religion-inspiring bosom). The story is hackneyed to the extreme. If you can’t look at the cast and know who dies, you need to see more movies. You may need to see ANY movies at all, in fact. And when it’s revealed that one of the brothers may be backstabbing the others the only real tension is how far the other three will go in believing it.

The three killer performances are Mark Wahlberg, Andre Benjamin and Chiwetal Ejiofor. The Artist Formerly Known as Marky Mark gets right back into thug mode – you get the impression that maybe on an alternate Earth where there were no New Kids on the Block, this character is who Mark Wahlberg is. He’s mean, he’s tough, he’s edgy. Wahlberg’s Bobby thinks that pretty much any situation can be solved with some well-placed bullets.|

Andre Benjamin shows that he has real acting chops as Jeremiah, the brother who stayed in Detroit and tried to make good. He’s the voice of reason for the film – while the other three brothers go right into Death Wish mode, he’s the one who calls for some thinking. Thankfully his pleas fall on deaf ears. Benjamin himself is sweet and funny, a fine screen presence.

Ejiofor isn’t one of the brothers – he’s the big bad guy. And he’s a great bad guy. As the gangster who really runs Detroit and who owns the police department, Ejiofor brings pronounced menace to the role. It’s nice that the movie takes time to show that everyone is afraid of him – there are some very memorable and hilarious moments when he humiliates people – but it’s too bad that we don’t get a chance to see him being an evil bastard really. Too many films rely on telling and not showing when it comes to the bad guys being bad. I suppose that ordering the hit on the kindly old lady was his truly evil deed, but it feels like he needs to feed someone to a lion or something. He’s that sort of a bad guy, and Ejiofor is delicious in the role. He’s a truly great actor, as we’ve seen in films like Melinda and Melinda and Dirty Pretty Things, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have fun with a role.

At the end of the film Ejiofor and Wahlberg go at it man to man in a big fistfight. That’s the kind of movie Four Brothers is, and I appreciate that. There were so many other spectacular ways to end the movie, but the right choice is fisticuffs. This is a third generation Western, and it’s proud of the conventions of that genre.

Singleton has put together a film that’s almost like an apology for Shaft. While that movie threw away everything that made blaxploitation fun, Four Brothers revels in it. There’s a massive gunfight in the film, where six guys are standing in the middle of a sunny street pumping thousands of rounds of machine gun bullets into our heroes’ home, and no one calls the cops. I love that!

I do wish that I could say that the film marked a return to greatness for Singleton, who made one almost classic film, a couple of flawed follow-ups and then sank into absolute shit. Four Brothers is heads and shoulders about pap like 2 Fast 2 Furious, but this guy is better than this. Four Brothers should be a fun movie because Singleton is slumming, but instead it’s fun despite his usual output.

By the way, Terence Howard is in this movie. He’s barely there, though, which is a shame. He plays the good cop in Detroit, and he’s fine. His performance isn’t up to his Oscar-level work in Hustle & Flow and Crash, but how could it be here?

7.4 out of 10