By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 18, 2010 at 07:28 PM EDT

When Mickey Rourke, a little over a year ago, enjoyed his big comeback, every story about him made a point of cataloguing his mythological mountain of trials and tribulations: the brutal battering he subjected himself to in the boxing ring, the drugs and booze and broken relationships, the botched plastic surgery, the “F–k yous!” to the movie industry and to his own fame, the lonely 3 a.m. convenience-store runs, the whole teary raging self-destructive fall from grace.

Image Credit: Phillip V. CarusoIt all got talked about, of course, because it was such a great, juicy, sad, fascinating story. But it also seemed an essential story because, by the time Rourke starred in The Wrestler, his perils were written, literally, all over his face.

If you go to see the dark new police thriller Brooklyn’s Finest (and you should), you’ll see that something similar could be said about Wesley Snipes. Not that he ever fell nearly as far as Mickey Rourke. But Snipes, too, is an actor who had greatness within his grasp, enjoyed a period of unabashed success, and then, through a complicated series of bad circumstances (including those of his own devising), slipped between the cracks. In Brooklyn’s Finest, he plays a neighborhood drug kingpin who has recently gotten out of prison, and though the character is meant to be shrewd, hard, wary, and ruthless, Snipes gives him surprising touches of jumpiness and vulnerability. The actor, who was born in 1962, looks older here than he ever has before. It’s not just the creases in his face — it’s the haunted look of disappointment upon it, the beaten-down gaze of someone who has been through too much hardship to hide. Maybe that’s all acting, but even the finest actors draw art out of their experience, and in Brooklyn’s Finest, it feels as if Wesley Snipes is drawing on his. He takes what might have been a routine implacable-drug-lord role and gives it an undercurrent of sympathetic anxiety.

For make no mistake: Wesley Snipes, over the last five years, has been through the wringer. Charged, in 2006, with tax fraud (a charge he was acquitted of in 2008), he was then found guilty of willful failure to file federal income tax returns and sentenced to three years in prison. He has appealed that decision and currently remains free on bail.

Those are the facts. Yet there’s a harrowing dimension to Snipes’ story that the facts don’t tell. He was, at one point, on the run from federal authorities — a situation that sounds like something out of a Wesley Snipes movie, except that it’s really a testament to how desperate his life had become. To me, you could taste a hint of that desperation simply by following the trajectory of his career. We all know that over the years he morphed from an A-list actor into a grade-B action star — the kind of performer who becomes the butt of jokes about the roles he’s ostensibly taken for paychecks. Yet even knowing that, when I looked up his credits on IMDb, the titles of his movies alone over the past 15 years seemed to tell a story: The Art of War, Unstoppable, Undisputed, 7 Seconds, The Marksman, Chaos, The Detonator, Hard Luck, The Art of War II: Betrayal — and, of course, Blade and its sequels, the pinwheelingly violent ninja vampire series that has kept him, to a degree, in the realm of blockbuster visibility.

Why did Wesley Snipes become an action star? For one thing, I do believe that he honestly loves action films (nothing wrong with that). Yet the full answer, I suspect, is more complicated, because it seems no great stretch to say that it has something to do with the (comparatively) limited number of leading-man roles that an actor like Wesley Snipes is going to be offered next to a comparable actor who didn’t happen to be African-American. I’m not making excuses for his behavior, but on some level, what Snipes’ career, and his troubles with the law, add up to is the story of a brilliant and complicated artist who became profoundly alienated from the mainstream entertainment industry.

He draws on that alienation, beautifully, in Brooklyn’s Finest. The film bookends one of his breakthrough roles, nearly 20 years ago, in New Jack City (1991), where he played a gangster with a tricky, hyped-up bravura that the movie barely knew what to do with. The drug lord in Brooklyn’s Finest could be the same man 20 years later, after he has been systematically broken down — by prison, betrayal, and middle age. Returning to the streets, he wants to get back in the game, but his instincts are rusty, and he knows it. His closest associate, played by Don Cheadle, is actually an undercover cop, and Cheadle, in a performance of equal force, shows you why his own loyalties are torn. He has grown so close to the criminal he’s supposed to be setting up that he feels sorry for him. Snipes does something I’ve almost never seen in the portrayal of a super-sly inner-city-projects gangsta: He shows you the intense anxiety, even the desolation, that burbles away beneath the thug life. Brooklyn’s Finest was actually shot in 2008 (it premiered at Sundance in January 2009), smack in the middle of Snipes’ troubles, so perhaps it was made a little too early to be regarded as a “comeback.” Yet it marks the blistering reawakening of Wesley Snipes’ talent. It should be a sign — to the industry, and to him — that he’s too powerful an actor to let slip away.

So what’s your favorite Wesley Snipes role? And what do you think he should do next?