The quartet in John Singleton’s “Four Brothers” is emphatically not made up of blood relatives. This little twist is built into the ads for the film, which prominently feature four actors who don’t much resemble each other: Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Andre Benjamin and Garrett Hedlund.
They play foster brothers who are reunited at the funeral of their adoptive mother (Fionnula Flanagan), a saintly woman who rescued these “lost causes” from a life of delinquency. She was killed, apparently accidentally, during a convenience-store robbery in her Detroit neighborhood.
But too much of the story doesn’t add up, and the boys, known locally as “the Mercer brothers,” suspect that she was executed by forces they don’t at first comprehend. Desperate to discover whodunit, they splash gasoline on potential witnesses, wave matches and get instant confessions. Soon bullets are flying, chainsaws are warming up, knives are drawn and more gasoline is poured.
The result is a grotesque, largely incoherent bloodbath — and a movie that insists on turning sentimental at particularly awkward moments. It’s as if Singleton were trying to mix the sensitive family drama of his first and best picture, “Boyz N the Hood” (1991), with the action-film mindlessness of his previous and most popular movie, “2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003).
David Elliot and Paul Lovett’s scrambled, shallow screenplay is loosely based on a popular mid-1960s John Wayne Western, “The Sons of Katie Elder.” Wahlberg has the Wayne role: the temperamental oldest brother, who organizes the survivors’ attempts at vengeance. A fierce ex-hockey player, he has “no mercy” tattooed on his back, and he means it.
“We shoulda been cops,” he announces at one particularly chilling moment.
The other brothers are less clearly defined. Benjamin plays a businessman with too many debts and a suspect insurance policy. Hedlund’s character is a boyish would-be rock star who shies away from violence. Gibson plays a ladies’ man whose on-and-off girlfriend (Sofia Vergara) provides a few minutes of welcome comic relief.
Terrence Howard, the star of Singleton’s other summer movie, “Hustle & Flow” (which Singleton produced but did not direct), turns up as a relatively honest cop who proves mostly that he’s far too trusting. Josh Charles is his devious partner, and Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a brutal Detroit gangster who appears to run the city. Howard gives the most graceful performance, Wahlberg the most emotional.
Unfortunately, almost as soon as their characters are established, the script abandons them and emphasizes body count. So many people are blasted into oblivion that it’s difficult to tell which side has suffered more casualities. Prolonged death scenes turn unintentionally comical. The preview audience at one screening reacted to the overkill by erupting into laughter.
The movie begins, for reasons that are never apparent, with Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” blasting away as the Paramount mountain is swamped by snowflakes falling on Detroit. The finale seems to arrive several times, but always with a shocking lack of consequences for the surviving torturers and killers.