On paper, John Singleton's Four Brothers sounds like a stark, compelling morality tale in the form of a vigilante movie. The premise could hardly be simpler: The good-hearted foster mother of four adopted delinquents—who all survived to adulthood due to her guidance—gets killed in a liquor-store robbery. The brothers are still street toughs at heart, and their first impulse is to exact their own form of justice, though that would be the last thing their saintly mother would want. Early in the film, André Benjamin, the most successful and conscientious of the four, says exactly that, but the other three—and, most regrettably, director John Singleton—clearly ain't buying it. So Singleton grants them their satisfaction without the slightest reservation, thereby turning Four Brothers into a despicable piece of Hollywood anti-realism that cynically betrays the serious issues at its core.

After reuniting at their mother's funeral, the brothers move back into their modest Detroit home and stew over the possibilities during a quiet Thanksgiving dinner. Mark Wahlberg plays their de facto leader, a grizzled ex-con who doesn't trust the cops to do their jobs and would much rather solve the case by shooting first and asking questions later. Over Benjamin's meek objections, the other two brothers (Tyrese Gibson and Garrett Hedlund) go along with the plan and immediately discover that their mother died under more suspicious circumstances than they knew. What looked like a robbery gone wrong was in fact a contract killing, and the boys are determined to crack skulls until they get to the bottom of a corrupt ring of street thugs, dirty cops, and corrupt city officials. Meanwhile, they're watched closely by two detectives (Terrence Howard and Josh Charles) eager to catch them reverting to their violent ways.

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In order for a revenge tale to work effectively, death has to have some weight, especially the act of killing, which can be just as negating to the vigilante as the original crime. But Singleton allows only a few minutes of grief before the moody introspection ends and it's time to break out the heavy artillery. From there, Four Brothers regresses into gallows comedy, rampant misogyny, and one preposterous Hollywood action setpiece after another, including a gratuitous car chase in the driving snow and a home invasion with more emptied chambers than The Wild Bunch. After a while, the nauseating disconnect between the film's strong moral agenda and its shamelessly immoral realization becomes too much to bear, like a wicked strain of cinematic vertigo. Vigilante films from Straw Dogs to The Last House On The Left to The Devil's Rejects may turn stomachs and bring out the cultural watchdogs, but at least those movies know that revenge has its price.