For his latest ride down the dark streets, Fuqua effectively samples contemporary urban classics through the associations of the past performances of his actors and his own filmography. Right off the bat, when you hear and see Sal (Ethan Hawke) sitting shotgun in a parked car on a darkened street listening to a scraggly hood named Carlo (Vincent D’Onofrio) rapping philosophically about legal merits of things being “righter or wronger,” you're supposed to immediately think back to Hawke’s wild, Oscar-nominated ride in Training Day with Denzel Washington. And once the conversation reaches its explosive conclusion, the stage is certainly set for the idea that Sal might be the next King Kong-like figure on the scene.
From there, the story alternatives between withdrawn veteran Eddie (Richard Gere) counting down his last days until retirement, while steering clear of any Internal Affairs that might derail his hard-earned pension, and a deep-covered Tango (Don Cheadle) on a Crash course with Caz (Wesley Snipes), a newly released New Jack ready to swing back into action on the mean city streets.
As the trio of narratives unfolds, Fuqua continues to litter the scene with criminal-minded references, most prominently attempting to bite some of the cred of The Wire by casting fan favorites Michael K. Williams, Hassan Johnson and Isiah Whitlock Jr. in pivotal roles that echo back to the critically acclaimed series. But soon the flashy reflections give way to the sense that Fuqua is melding James Gray’s outer borough policier We Own the Night and Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential.
It is in the comparison to Confidential that Finest proves to have some distinctive juice of its own.
Hanson’s trio of conflicted cops eventually wound up joining forces for a journey to a redemptive showdown against a corrupt system. Here, while Sal, Tango and Eddie’s paths will lead to the same final destination, these wandering urban knights fail to unite because their battles are not waged against the system or The Man so much as against their own worst instincts and impulses.
Cops like Sal put their lives on the line with no way to support growing families or their own psyches and they must constantly confront the temptations of ill-gotten gains that will line the pockets and offices of their superiors who have long since left behind the dangers of the streets. Tango and his undercover brothers must maintain their balance in situations with far more intimate exposure to the criminal lifestyle.
The Eddies of the world might be the most tragic of all — because cops like him walk the streets everyday exposed to the petty cruelties and the systemic failures and they endeavor to do little more than keep their heads down, harden their hearts to it all and hope to reach retirement. Are these the finest out there serving and protecting us?
Their training days are forgotten and so, too, are Fuqua’s. He graduated into a pair of soldier’s stories in vastly different fronts and ages. Tears of the Sun, his foray onto the modern battlefield and the morality of doing the “righter” thing in opposition to merely following orders, led to a trek back to the epic glory of the age of King Arthur. The theme of ambivalent warriors obviously speaks to Fuqua, but his spin on this character type is thoroughly contemporary in that his fighters face their enemies alone. There is no unity or safety in a round table of allies. Each man must stand on his own.
Hawke, Cheadle and Gere embrace their character’s solo flights gone awry like astronauts cut off from mission control. Hawke drifts off into manic lunacy that actually recalls Duncan Jones’ Moon because the only tangible link for Sal is his family. He doesn’t want forgiveness or redemption; he seeks help to support his ever-expanding family, but he fails to see how his actions have forced him into greater isolation from them.
The crown of onscreen righteousness has been passed from Denzel (although, as long as he’s stepping in front of the cameras he will hold his claim to it) to Cheadle, and as fine as he is as Tango, it's time for Cheadle to redirect the fires like Denzel did in Training Day or he might be consumed by the white-hot expectations. He captures the dichotomy of undercover work, but to truly make his mark he needs to play one dimension or the other to the extreme.
Not surprisingly, it's Gere who benefits the most from working alone. His polished handsomeness has always created a barrier between him and his romantic or dramatic foils, usually stranding his co-stars, unless they existed in their own hermetically sealed star bubble (like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman). But Fuqua exploits that quality, and the affected tics that Gere armors Eddie with, to let us see how locked away this retiring man is, so that when he finally breaks through to the surface, we appreciate the effort and Gere.
Fuqua often ramps up the suspense through quick shifts between the three alternating storylines, creating the illusion interlocking threads. But he doesn’t artificially do so through the plot — Fuqua remains true to his code and preserves a degree of narrative realism. It's a fine example of a filmmaker abiding by the law of the streets. Grade: B-plus
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