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The fab four: (l-r) Benjamin, Hedlund, Wahlberg and Gibson in Four Brothers.

Urban Cowboys
By Laura Leon

Four Brothers

Directed by John Singleton

Poor Mark Wahlberg. A few years back he was asked to step into the formidable, fashionable shoes of Cary Grant in the tepid remake of Charade. Now, director John Singleton has cast him as the John Wayne character in Four Brothers, his modern-day update of the 1965 western The Sons of Katie Elder. Don’t get me wrong; I like Wahlberg, but Grant he ain’t, and no matter the musculature and attitude, he’s not exactly the Duke either. That said, the actor delivers his new assignment with great aplomb and a clear sense of fun, helping to elevate the solid, if decidedly B picture into something a little more gutsy.

Wahlberg plays Bobby Mercer, a badass who blows back into Detroit following the murder of his adopted mother Evelyn (Fionnula Flanagan). The sainted Evelyn shepherded thousands of kids through the city’s foster system, but adopted four lost causes for herself, creating in the process a racially mixed clan bound by fierce love and loyalty, and blessed by Mum’s belief in their innate goodness. Joining Bobby first in grief, and then, as it becomes clear that the murder was no drive-by but an intentional hit, revenge, are upstanding union organizer Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin), former Marine and sometime hustler Angel (Tyrese Gibson), and sensitive punk rocker Jack (Garrett Hedlund). Gracing the edges of the tale are good cop Green (Terrence Howard) and criminal kingpin Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

What Singleton lacks in finesse, he more than makes up for with a no-frills appreciation of the simple story. As with the great westerns, landscape is a crucial character in Four Brothers, only instead of majestic Monument Valley, it’s the skeletal remains of Detroit’s former prestige. The movie takes place in that often dreary time just after Thanksgiving, with swirling snow that looks gray even before it hits the ground. Even Victor Sweet, the acknowledged power broker of the neighborhood, lacks the usual Hollywood accoutrements of wealth; his house is a ’60s raised ranch, his restaurant is faux Italian rococo and his minions are decidedly working-class. Shocker: Nobody drives a souped-up SUV or Lexus, and a getaway car is a mint, forest-green El Camino.

The leads clearly enjoy the chance to play simple vengeance without getting too caught up in psychological back story. While the characters are mostly updates of standard types found in westerns, there is one noticeable difference: Unlike the classic western hero, who reluctantly left his own isolation, or retirement, to get the job done, the eldest Mercer is more than happy to do what needs doing. Nobody needs to coax Bobby into helping find out who offed Evelyn; indeed, Jeremiah in particular urges restraint and trust in the police. Benjamin, better known as André 3000, has a good presence, but little to do. Hedlund, clearly cast as the wet-behind-the-ears pup, is likeable, if forgettable. Gibson gets the best chance to shine, backing up his model good looks with a somber persona that promises grit, determination and, when necessary, the ability to ride shotgun.

But it’s clearly Wahlberg’s movie, and he has a ball with it. The scene in which black-clad Bobby saunters over the frozen lake to meet Little Victor and his crew is at once reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and yet weirdly of its own time and place. Even playing down and out blue collar, Wahlberg commands attention, and so, to some extent, does Four Brothers.

You’re What, Ma?

Saving Face

Directed by Alice Wu

This old-fashioned romantic comedy arrives in the middle of a summer season balanced almost evenly between the embarrassingly light and/or stupid (Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard) and the seriously heavy and/or violent (War of the Worlds, Batman Begins). Spiced up with same-sexiness, elder breeding and sly cultural jokes, Saving Face is the right movie at the right time—for this reviewer, anyway.

Wil—aka Wilhelmina—Pang (Michelle Krusiec) may have become a hotshot surgeon at a prestigious Manhattan hospital, but every Friday night she dutifully takes the subway home to Queens for the weekly dinner-dance at the community center. Like a nice obedient Chinese daughter, she dances, perfunctorily, with the men her mother (Joan Chen) picks as good marriage prospects; she chats with her relatives; and then, wearily, she heads back home, loaded down with packets of herbs prescribed to make her more marriageable.

Of course she’s very gay, and this is all pointless, but she at least gets to make goo-goo eyes at the hot ballet dancer (Lynn Chen) who is also dragged to the weekly shindig, where most of the interesting action involves the gossiping of a platoon of middle-aged “Chinese biddies.”

The fun begins when mom shows up on her doorstep, pregnant. If mom can’t imagine that her daughter is a lesbian, then daughter can’t imagine that her long-widowed mom is sexually active. (The fact that mom is played by drop-dead-gorgeous Joan Chen just adds to the funny.) What follows is a comedy of what, at first, seem to be minor misunderstandings, but prove to be profound (and profoundly funny) misunderstandings.

And the misreadings include the audience, too: Writer-director Alice Wu plays on our expectations beautifully, giving everyone—gay and straight, Chinese or other—something to misread. Wu also makes fun of mainstream “Chinese” movies. When mom goes into a Manhattan video store and asks for “Chinese movies,” she’s pointed to a rack of stuff like The Joy Luck Club—and pornos. She rents a porno.

The cultural details—like the fact that, during their conversations, Wil always speaks English and her mom never does—are as much fun as the romantic entanglements. Everything about the movie seems right, even the kinda wish-fulfillment ending. It’s OK for things to work out fine, once in a while.

—Shawn Stone

As Seen on the Hitler Channel

The Great Raid

Directed by John Dahl

John Dahl’s staid dramatization of a daring World War II rescue mission, The Great Raid, is a bit of a snooze, although history buffs may find its old-fashioned visuals and clear logistics to be thoroughly satisfying. Everyone else may grow impatient with Dahl’s plodding and obvious plot development, which concerns a battalion of raw recruits who volunteer to liberate the notorious—and heavily guarded—Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines. There isn’t much in the movie to match the skillful framing: An opening prologue of newsreel footage is blended into a horrific reenactment of American prisoners being burned alive by their Japanese captors. As the narrator, Capt. Prince (James Franco), explains, the Japanese policy towards prisoners was total annihilation (unabashedly a war story, the film doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to depicting Japanese aggression). At the conclusion, joyful footage of the surviving prisoners indicates that they were a much livelier bunch than the bland and clichéd characters that Dahl imagines.

The raid’s two leaders, who will of course butt heads over strategy, are Prince and his superior, the enigmatic Lt. Colonel Mucci (Benjamin Bratt). We know Mucci is supposed to be enigmatic because when he’s not strutting with pent-up nobility, he’s puffing on a stogie and staring into an unfathomable distance. In one example of the film’s canned-nostalgia dialogue, Prince declares that he just wants to do his part and go home to his wife. Later, a casualty will be referred to as a “poor dumb bastard.” There is much talk of faith but no mention of God—the film isn’t that old-fashioned, though it does dare to portray a kindly and brave Catholic priest.

Meanwhile the prisoners, who have been incarcerated for three years, are running out of hope and time. Capt. Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) is wasting away from malaria while his bonnie comrade Capt. Redding (Marton Csokas) is going stir-crazy and may be on the brink of inciting the guards to greater sadism. The always-stylish Csokas gives the only vivid performance, with his louche take on Jimmy Stewart. Gibson’s idealized love object, Margaret (Connie Nielson), risks her life with the Manila underground to smuggle medicine into the camp. Though it’s even more predictable than the raid itself, the clunky inclusion of the Philippine resistance is the film’s most interesting angle.

Perhaps to pay homage to the real-life raiders, there are too many characters, or at least, too many with too little of import to do. The battalion’s interpersonal conflicts are as tepid as Army tea and the director’s attempts at reproducing the stirring fatalism of Saving Private Ryan only accentuates the film’s inferior characterization. Despite Dahl’s sincerity, “the greatest military escape in U.S. history” is a bust.

—Ann Morrow


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