Four frères: Unforgettable but uneven

A mediocre John Wayne western, The Sons of Katie Elder becomes an epic urban drama in the hands of John Singleton, who blends social relevance and commercial elements into an uneven but unforgettable package.

The Four Brothers of the title aren't all "brothers" in the racial sense: two are black, two are white. All were adapted by Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan), "the sweetest woman in the goddam world." She placed children in foster homes, but there were "four delinquents so far gone she couldn't find anyone to take them in; so she did."

While Jeremiah (Andra Benjamin) has remained in Detroit, married (Taraji P. Henson), and tried to get a business going, the other three, badasses all, scattered and haven't seen each other in years until they're reunited at Evelyn's funeral.

The script by David Elliot and Paul Lovett is efficient and complex, if deeply flawed. The beginning is exposition-heavy as two cops discuss the four brothers. Basically Green (Terrence Howard) tells his partner, Fowler (Josh Charles), all about them: Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), "the Michigan Mauler"; Angel (Tyrese Gibson), "pretty boy, ex-hustler, soldier"; and Jack (Garrett Hedlund), "first-class f***up, third-class rockstar."

Four Brothers gets off to a rocky start. Besides the clunky exposition, it seems for a time like a long-form music video, with a string of mostly Motown oldies played too loud. It's 25 minutes before the plot really kicks in, but by then the combination of nostalgia and camaraderie has put us firmly on the boys' side.

Evelyn was killed in an apparent convenience store robbery, but Bobby quickly concludes it was a professional hit: "It was an execution. They set her up." Because he thinks the police "couldn't find t*ts in a strip joint," it's up to the brothers to solve the case and serve as judge, jury, and executioners.

Jerry balks– "Let the cops do their damn job"– and blows hot and cold about helping. Bobby, the alpha brother, could almost do the job alone, but Angel and Jack come in handy for backup when things get complicated. Suspicion falls on several people, including Jeremiah, as the investigation continues; but the trail seems to be leading to sadistic crime boss Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor). At least he's at the top of a pyramid that includes a crooked cop, a corrupt councilman, hired killers, and assorted thugs.

Acting isn't usually the long suit of movies like this, but Wahlberg's performance, perhaps drawn from his own roots, is above and beyond the call of duty. Gibson and Hedlund are fine, as is Benjamin in a change of pace from his impressive comic turn in Be Cool. Howard's good too, in what should be his last supporting role, now that Hustle & Flow has made him a star.

The brothers have several opportunities to rough people up and to defend themselves. An intense assault on the family home is like the OK Corral with AK-47s; Precinct 13 didn't have it this bad. A car chase on a snowy night is exciting and a little different.

"Exciting and a little different" is a fair description of Four Brothers, a movie that should incite some brotherly love.