If you haven't figured out that ''Four Brothers," the new John Singleton film, is an intentionally scrappy throwback to mid-'70s action flicks, the scene in which the Mercer brothers' childhood home is shot up by gangsters should set you straight. As wood splinters go flying, windows shatter, and cherished framed photos bite the dust, Singleton treats us to a shot of a vintage vinyl record player shuddering in its death throes. Have these villains no shame?
On one level, ''Four Brothers" represents a distinct comedown for the director of the socially conscious ''Boyz N the Hood" and ''Baby Boy" and producer of the art-house hit ''Hustle & Flow." It's not even as slick as his 2000 remake of ''Shaft" or his perfunctory sequel duties on ''2 Fast 2 Furious." A nominal inner-city rehash of the 1965 John Wayne western ''The Sons of Katie Elder," ''Brothers" is a faux-low-budget revenge thriller, pure and simple. There's nothing special about it, and that's what's refreshing.
Set against a snaky, ear-tickling backdrop of Motown hits and Philly soul classics, ''Four Brothers" starts with a little old lady (Fionnula Flanagan of ''The Others") getting gunned down during a convenience store holdup in her ratty Detroit neighborhood. It turns out Evelyn Mercer was a social worker with a history of adopting worst-case delinquents no one else would touch; now this multiracial crew is all grown up and ready to settle scores with Mom's killer.
Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) is the oldest and de facto leader, blowing into town with all sorts of ill winds at his back. Angel (model/rapper/R&B balladeer Tyrese Gibson) is ex-Army and ex-prison. Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin, a.k.a. Andre 3000 of OutKast) is the good son, married with kids and holding a job. Youngest brother Jack (Garrett Hedlund, ''Friday Night Lights") is a wannabe rock musician and jittery basket case. The four quickly realize Mom's death was no random murder but an intentional hit.
I could tell you where the plot goes from there but what's the point? ''Four Brothers" goes into B-movie lockdown as soon as everyone is assembled, and the action spreads out to take in a crooked local councilman (played by the wonderful, phlegmatic character actor Barry Shabaka Henley), a sympathetic cop (''Hustle & Flow" star Terrence Howard), a less sympathetic cop (nerdy Josh Charles of ''Sports Night," snarling with abandon), and a crime kingpin dandy named Victor Sweet (surprise -- it's that nice British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor of ''Dirty Pretty Things" and ''Love Actually"). Sweet's such a nasty piece of work that not only does he force a henchman (Jernard Burks) to get on the floor and eat like a dog -- he makes the henchman's girlfriend do the same.
Well, it's a man's man's man's man's world, to quote the one R&B chestnut not on the film's soundtrack. Taraji P. Henson, one of the best things in ''Hustle & Flow," is wasted in the tiny part of Jeremiah's wife, while Sofia Vergara does what she can with her crazy-hot-tamale role of Angel's girlfriend. To be fair, ''Four Brothers" is mostly a leading man's world, since Hedlund and Benjamin have little to do, Gibson preens, and Wahlberg wraps what's left of the movie around his pinky and twirls it with bad-boy relish. If anyone still wonders if the kid has star quality, trust me -- he has.
What ''Four Brothers" doesn't have is particularly skilled direction. Grubby to look at and edited with a rusty knife, it's a bumptious, low-rent ride and further proof that Singleton, for all his status and acclaim, doesn't have impressive filmmaking chops. The movie's strengths are in its juicy performances, unapologetic mayhem, and the few change-ups thrown by David Elliot and Paul Lovett's script (love that showdown on a frozen Lake Michigan, by the way), not in the verities of camera placement, narrative pacing, and so forth. Don't get me wrong -- this is solid meat-and-potatoes stuff. But Singleton may want us to think he's stooping to conquer, when it really feels like he has finally found his level.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.