Talk about the use of irony in film titles — this one’s right up there with World’s Greatest Dad. The cops in this newest gritty, down-and-dirty offering from Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) have some trouble going on in their lives, resulting in some glitches in the performance of their jobs. And that’s putting it mildly.
This is all one big story, centering mostly around what the New York cops call the BK Projects — home to 15,000 residents and the locus of a very high crime rate. But it’s split into three separate stories about three different cops.
Sal (Ethan Hawke) makes it look like he’s on the ball, doing what needs to be done, always in the right places at the right times when busting up drug deals. But he’s falling short in providing money for his family, and there’s a lot of dirty cash easily within his reach. Tango (Don Cheadle) has been undercover for far too long, risking his life daily just by being around the gangsters who run that drug trade. He wants to be off the street; he wants his life back. Eddie (Richard Gere) is burnt out, has seen too many awful things, and just tries to get through the day, following orders, playing by the rules. Most of the cops here are involved in all kinds of complications. Eddie’s life is empty — and oh, did I mention that he’s one week away from retirement? But don’t get any preconceived ideas from that information. The film is virtually cliché-free.
First-time screenwriter Michael C. Martin adds unrelenting tension to the already dangerous atmosphere by populating the film with some very nasty bad guys who pack and use mean-looking weapons. Actually, everyone has a bad-guy streak, cops and criminals both.
Martin also gives us people with relationship problems at home, and a cloud of religious confusion hovering in the background. The language he gives his characters is rough, but due to the situations they find themselves in, it all feels natural.
Then there are those folks who run various shows: Caz (Wesley Snipes) is just out of the hoosegow after eight years, and he’s chomping at the bit to be back in charge again. Lt. Hobarts (Will Patton) is a higher-up cop who’s constantly trying to make the right decisions — the ones that won’t injure or kill the cops under him. Agent Smith (Ellen Barkin) is even higher up — a tough cop who loves to wield power and never flinches. You do not want to mess with her.
As the stories play out, they start to get geographically closer to each other — there’s a terrific sequence in which one of the main characters is walking across a street as another one drives by him in a car, but only the audience notices. It’s hard to know how to react at that moment. Is it played for laughs, or is the director tightening his grip on you?
It’s equally hard to determine the film’s most tragic figure. There’s absolutely no one to care about among the out-and-out bad guys. But you almost have to root for all three main cop characters, even if some of them don’t initially seem worthy of it. Up to the hilt in misguided loyalties and aided by subtle but menacing music that sneaks up behind the action, the film will definitely not work as a recruiting tool for anyone to join the police force.
The plotlines all have jagged edges. But Fuqua has fashioned a dark, smoothly flowing film with a continually building energy. While running at two and a quarter hours, it absolutely flies by.