The old John Wayne-Dean Martin hayburner The Sons of Katie Elder wasn't a very good movie the first time around -- Dino and a cowboy hat go together about as well as Sinatra and bib overalls -- and John Singleton's jokey, urbanized rehash isn't likely to snow the Oscar voters either. Set in Detroit in the dead of winter, Four Brothers lifts from Katie its rather artificial plot, about rowdy siblings who set out to get justice for the murder of a parent. But because this is a Singleton picture -- he gave us rough ghetto drama in Boyz N the Hood, automotive mayhem in 2 Fast 2 Furious and a super-slick remake of Shaft -- he's reimagined Henry Hathaway's 1965 revenge western as a war between good and evil on the mean streets of Motown. It comes complete with lots of casual violence and an overdose of hit-and-miss wisecracks largely based on interracial jousting. With his boots and bandanna and his upright moralism, the iconic Duke Wayne would have no place in the remake.
In an ensemble action movie like this one, chemistry among the stars is essential, and that's Brothers' main strength. The four tough guys of the title all have their appealing quirks, and it's evident that the actors had a good time pushing and shoving each other in a common cause. As Bobby, the oldest (and the coldest) of the Mercer brothers, Mark Wahlberg is all savagery and strut -- a single-minded vigilante untroubled by pangs of conscience. The stylish ladies' man, Angel (Tyrese Gibson), is pretty dedicated to the mission himself, and he has just the right touch of vanity. Jeremiah, played by OutKast's André Benjamin (a.k.a. André 3000), is the settled family man whose wife (Taraji P. Henson) tries to keep him on a solid career track when he's struck by the temptations of rage. The baby of the bunch, Jack (Friday Night Lights' Garrett Hedlund), is, as you'd expect, the butt of his older brothers' jokes but, in the end, an exceptionally cool dude in his own right. In other words, there's somebody for everybody in the heat of Hollywood's August.
You've likely noticed by now that the "brothers" of the piece, who were conceived by co-writers David Elliot and Paul Lovett, happen to be a mixed-race group -- two white, two black. This paradox is explained by the fact that their sainted mother, Evelyn, was actually their adoptive mother -- the force of nature who probably saved all of them from the penitentiary, or worse, and to whom they owe the progress of their souls. When Evelyn is killed in a grocery store stickup (the Elder boys' folks got theirs in frontier Texas), the brothers reunite to take care of business in her name. But before we get to that, Singleton has a lot of fun playing with racial misconceptions and the very idea of what constitutes "brotherhood." A lot of the stuff belongs to the old "Whaddya mean we, white boy?" school of humor, but just underneath its sharp sibling-rivalry banter and its strenuous ass-kicking, this movie's got a pretty nice thing going on: a pointed if frequently offhand essay about breaking down barriers and bonding in a time when mutual distrust and wariness still loom over American race relations. Never mind the Freudian implications of four brothers avenging dear old Mom: What we have here are four disconnected heroes who come to grasp what emotional teamwork means. It's a little like the old combat movies in which disparate elements of an infantry squad -- the guy from Brooklyn, the Hispanic, the Jew and the hillbilly -- work together to take out the German machine gun nest. Come to think of it, maybe there is a part for John Wayne in here.
The four lads of the title mean everything to this movie, but connoisseurs of supporting players will also find some things to like: Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British-born son of Nigerian parents, is terrific in the unlikely role of an odious Detroit mob boss called Victor Sweet, and Terrence Howard (star of the controversial I-am-a-pimp movie Hustle & Flow, which Singleton produced) is just right as a police lieutenant who understands the Mercer brothers' quest. When all is said and done, though, Four Brothers is a gala fraternity party stocked with assorted weapons and lots of derring-do. It's not great, but Mom might like it.