Director Antoine Fuqua's bad cop-bad cop movie looks like a bleak follow-up to "Training Day." Ethan Hawke's ethical rookie cop in the 2001 movie has seemingly moved from L.A. to Brooklyn and crossed over to the dark side. He has plenty of company walking the questionable edge of the thin blue line.
Sound familiar? After Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" and television fare like "The Shield," the dirty-cop genre feels as weary as the policemen patrolling the urban jungles. Fuqua has spit-polished the production with his signature flair, giving the movie's dangerous exteriors a slick yet ominous visual look. And the tension? Tautly stretched from start to finish.
But somewhere along the way, the message gets cut down by bullets and drowned in blood. Too bad. Screenwriter Michael C. Martin sets a promising philosophical tone with the first dialogue exchange as Carlo (Vincent D'Onofrio) sits in a parked car with Sal (Hawke), talking about a case not being about "right and wrong but righter or wronger." The narrative threads three storylines about stereotypical cops in different phases of their career and with different moral dilemmas: the burned-out patrolman (Richard Gere) slated for retirement in seven days, the narcotics detective (Hawke) in need of money to provide for his sick wife (Lili Taylor) and growing family, and the undercover cop (Don Cheadle) who befriended a drug kingpin (Wesley Snipes) but wants his life back.
The cast performs with such intensity that the characters are riveting, even when their choices make little sense other than to pump up the action. Violence erupts out of nowhere, surprising the viewer as much as the victim. Sal, in particular, wields the way of the gun with the same disregard for human life as the drug dealers operating in the highest crime precinct of Brooklyn. That's the point. Good cops turn bad. Innocents die. The projects become a tinderbox, and police cover-ups ensue. The NYPD stories unspool independently, until they conveniently -- and unconvincingly -- cross paths in "Crash" fashion at the blood-splattered climax.
In one powerful scene, Fuqua exercises his music-video chops with a nod to Hitchcock's famous "knife" sequence from his first sound film, "Blackmail." Sal goes rogue cop to steal money from a big-time drug operation. As he moves alone through the apartment, blowing people away and rifling through cupboards for cash, the word "money" resounds repeatedly from the song lyrics playing on the radio. Sal can think of nothing else.
Unfortunately, there's nothing else for the viewer to think about either.