Though it is not accurate to call the vigilante movie a genre unto itself like horror or the Western, ever since revenge became such popular and potent subject matter in 1970s American cinema (see 'Death Wish,' 'Dirty Harry,' 'Straw Dogs') filmmakers have never tired of churning out new spins on the once-taboo topic. Sure enough, every few years we get a new movie where a once law-abiding protagonist must resort to violence to ensure justice, usually after the murder or rape of a loved one. Though recent entries in the sub-genre including 'Mystic River,' 'Sleepers,' 'Revenge' and 'Eye for an Eye' have met with varying degrees of critical and commercial success, and none has achieved the kind of impact and notoriety of a 'Dirty Harry' or 'Death Wish,' there is still something both alluring and repulsive about the idea of taking the law into our own hands. When in doubt, give an ordinary guy a gun and watch the box office profits pile up.
'Four Brothers' hit theaters in early 2005, making it the latest vigilante flick to ring up fairly strong returns at the box office. It offers your typical revenge scenario: Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan) is the closest the slums of Detroit ever got to a fairy godmother. Adopting four disadvantaged young boys of varying backgrounds and ethnicities (Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Andre Benjamin, Garrett Hedlund), she took nothing so her boys could have everything. But years later, after she is murdered in what looks like an anonymous convenience store robbery, the Mercer clan returns to their old haunt to pay their respects -- and seek justice. But all is not what it seems -- was Evelyn's murder just the result of a job gone robbed, or premeditated? And are the sons hiding secrets of their own?
'Four Brothers' certainly represents something of a career re-invigoration for John Singleton. The one-time whiz kid auteur (who, at 27 years old, became the youngest filmmaker ever to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar for 'Boyz 'N the Hood') has suffered a bit of a downturn as of late, with a string of critical disappointments ('Poetic Justice,' 'Higher Learning') and impersonal sellouts ('Shaft,' '2 Fast 2 Furious'). But 'Four Brothers' seems fueled by the same kind of passion Singleton displayed in 'Hood,' with intensely staged action sequences, a vibey use of classic tunes and some audacious visual panache. And for the first time he years, he seems to care about what happens to his characters -- 'Four Brothers' makes a genuine effort to explore the ramifications of its subject matter, more than merely exploit it for commercial viability.
Still, I have to admit that 'Four Brothers' left me feeling a bit queasy. Vigilante movies are tough to pull off. -- there is a fine line between exploring the topic legitimately and glorifying its excesses. 'Four Brothers' seems to want to have it both ways. Singleton admirably shows the consequences as the once tight-knit bond between the Mercer sons begins to unravel and the situation starts to spiral out of control -- no one is left untouched, and the lies and deceptions run deep -- yet he also seems to be getting off on the primal appeal of street justice by staging the bloodshed like just another entertaining action movie. There is also a seemingly gratuitous homoerotic/homophobic interplay between the Mercer sons, while every female character is either a madonna or a whore, and the jarring lapses into comedy shtick betray the seriousness of the subject matter. Which makes it hard not to question the moral backbone of 'Four Brothers' and its makers. Once you use violence in the name of justice, no matter how noble the cause, it scars you irrevocably. And how many people have to die before the ends no longer justify the means? At the end of 'Four Brothers,' I wasn't sure if Singleton ever even entertained the possibility that such an idea could exist.
'Four Brothers' hits Blu-ray resented in 2.35:1 widescreen and encoded as 1080p/MPEG-2 video, and like its HD DVD counterpart it looks quite nice. 'Four Brothers' has a more polished and crisp visual style than you might expect for an "urban" film, with bold colors and a rich, detailed look.
Minted from the same source material as the HD DVD, there are no blemishes, dropouts or other artifacts to mar the image. Blacks are deep and consistent even in the darkest scenes, and though there is some inherent grain visible it gives the transfer the appropriate film-like look. Contrast is rather natural and sharpness generally excellent as well. Also, though I thought the standard DVD release suffered from too much edge enhancement than is acceptable, this transfer is much smoother yet not too soft, which results is a fairly substantial upgrade in apparent depth -- how very nice to see. However, colors looked a tad bit too saturated for my taste, with some dark colors crushing down to a solid hue in the shadows, thereby reducing detail. Otherwise, color reproduction is well done with clean hues and no apparent noise or smearing.
Now, how does the Blu-ray stack up against the HD DVD? As I'm coming to find with all my reviews of Paramount's first Blu-ray offerings ('U2 Rattle and Hum' being the first), it is a bit of a trade-off. Though hardly noticeable to the naked eye, after about ten minutes of back-and-forth video switching between a few scenes -- plus pushing my face up to the screen with lots of squinting -- I thought the Blu-ray looked a bit smoother, but also softer. Some shots looked slightly less grainy on the Blu-ray, but edges a bit muted as well. There could be a few reasons for this. Calibration of different players with a display device are rarely an exact match, and the infamous faulty noise reduction circuit of the Samsung BD-P1000 I'm currently using as our review player could also be having a bit too much fun with itself. Whatever the case, the differences are so slight between the two that it is highly likely it is a result of the hardware. Even the best fine-tuning of a home theater setup will still allow for some subtle variances in image quality anyway, and regardless I can't say the differences I saw between the Blu-ray and HD DVD are anything more than highly negligible at best.
Somewhat unusual (so far) for Blu-ray, but Paramount is including both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround tracks on all of their initial releases. Alas, such options are largely lost on a film like 'Four Brothers,' as its sound design is rather lacking. Paramount also continues to downgrade the Dolby tracks on their blu-ray releases -- the mix here is 640kbps only, not the 1.5mbps of its HD DVD counterpart. In any case, there is little sense of envelopment or engagement here, and given the action-oriented nature of the material and director John Singleton's often creative use of classic songs and score, I expected a bit more.
Certainly, tech specs are up to snuff. Dynamic range is pleasing with solid reproduction across the entire frequency range. Though the Dolby Digital track on the original standard-def DVD release suffered a bit from poor high end and dull low bass, the improved bitrate (640kbps) of the Dolby Digital track does offer some improvement (the DTS is also a step up, though it still trails the Dolby track). High end in particular is less harsh, and low frequencies kick in a bit more during the action sequences. Still, there just is not much going on in this mix -- even the extensive use of popular songs and the climactic showdown lack sonic excitement. Surround use is meager at best -- there is a bit of directionality with sound effects such as gunshots, but aside from the aforementioned rap song no inventive use of score or dialogue. When the rears are active imaging is solid, but with a mix this front heavy it can do little to muster up much in the way of envelopment. What a letdown.
I wasn't sure what to expect in the way of extras on Paramount's first wave of Blu-ray releases, but was pleasantly surprised to find that all of the studio's initial titles contain the same supplements as their HD DVD counterparts -- all on a single-layer, BD-25 disc. In the case of 'Four Brothers,' it is a pretty standard suite of supplements -- commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes and a trailer. Nothing extraordinary, but perfectly fine stuff if you're interested in the flick.
As director John Singleton says in his audio commentary, he wanted to make a "modern Western" with 'Four Brothers,' and it certainly invigorated his filmmaking juices. Alas, he is far from invigorated on this track, with a dull, listless delivery that betrays his enthusiasm for the movie. Luckily, he does impart a good deal of information on his intended themes and aesthetic decisions with the film, especially the casting of the Sofi character, which generated some controversy among reviewers as being a misogynistic caricature. Singleton does grows a bit more lively at the climax, describing how he staged the big showdown in a far-from-welcoming section of downtrodden Detroit, but this track is still likely be a slow, tough-going track unless you're a huge fan of the director.
Next up are a quartet of typical EPK-like featurettes: "Crafting 'Four Brothers'" (10:54), "Behind the Brotherhood" (9:29), "The Look of 'Four Brothers'" (10:05) and "Mercer House Shootout" (4:16). Not really a comprehensive overview, instead these featurettes focus in on key aspects of the production, namely the screenplay, cast, cinematography and the climactic action scene, respectively. All the material is culled from the same batch of behind-the-scenes footage and on-set/press junket interviews, but it is professionally shot and nicely edited. Like most Paramount making-ofs, this stuff is entertaining enough if largely forgettable once it's over.
The last of the main extras is a collection of nine Deleted Scenes, running almost 12 minutes. None are particularly interesting, with a couple of scenes coming off as even more misogynistic and homophobic than what ended up in the movie. The quality of these scenes is also poor, presented in fuzzy 480i video and with crummy sound to boot.
Rounding out the package is the film's theatrical trailer presented in full 1080p video.
'Four Brothers' is a fairly riveting crime thriller. I don't think it is director John Singleton's best effort, but after such commercial if soulless flicks like '2 Fast 2 Furious' and 'Shaft,' at least he's back on track and doing the kind of material he does best. This Blu-ray release is on par with the recent HD DVD -- solid transfer and soundtrack and a decent batch of supplements. Perhaps not the most amazing release to hit Blu-ray, but a perfectly respectable effort nonetheless.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.