The gang’s all back together for the sequel to Brother – Brother 2, unsurprisingly. That includes the writer/director Aleksey Balabanov, star Sergey Bodrov, key members of the support cast, notably Viktor Sukhorukov as the titular brother, plus cinematographer Sergey Astakhov, editor Marina Lipartiya, composer Vyacheslav Butusov and even the chunky knit sweater that Bodrov wore through most of the first film.
Amusingly, Balabanov starts off his sequel with a direct callback to the first film – a scene in which Bodrov’s Danila, an ex-soldier and hitman of the cool, unassuming sort, wanders on to a film set, just as he did first time out. This time, though, Danila is in Moscow rather than St Petersburg. This time he isn’t instantly hauled off the set for being a persona non grata. This time, their statuses now switched, brother Viktor is at home with mamma, having had his assed saved at the end of the first film by his younger brother. Viktor won’t remain there long.
It’s worth remembering, watching this sequel, how successful the first film was, particularly with a certain youthful demographic who saw the Russia they inhabited – the “shock treatment” suggested by western economists having collapsed the economy – reflected in a story set on the streets where life was fighting back against the collapse, often in ugly yet vital ways.
It’s now three years later, in 2000, and Russia is getting back on its feet. That newfound optimism suffuses this sequel. In early scenes Danila meets up with some old Chechen veterans like himself, for a TV interview, he befriends a pop star (Irina Saltykova playing herself), he hangs out at a spa where beers are drunk and naked girls are glimpsed. Things are looking up.
Until an army buddy of Danila’s is killed, and Danila finds himself caught up in a complex war between the Russian mafia, its Ukrainian counterpart, and a crooked American ice hockey entrepreneur hoping to milk assets in Russia, with mafia help.
Up to here the film is fine, a reminder of how smartly made and played the original was – it’s lean, evocative, drily funny, drole, violent when necessary, a bit like Get Carter in fact. And then Balabanov, hoping to make wider points about the rise of Russia by comparing it to the old adversary, America, shifts the action to Chicago, where Danila and his crew, including the similarly cool Ilya (Kirill Pirogov) and Danila’s recently arrived buffoonish brother Viktor, head to avenge Kostya, their dead comrade.
Here Balabanov gets expansive, with sweet subplots about Danila being taken under the wing by a truck driver (Ray Toler) and a TV presenter (Lisa Jeffrey), and adds sprinklings of Crocodile Dundee fish-out-of-water comedy of the “THAT’s a knife” sort.
Bodrov remains a cool presence and his character Danila, a mix of luck and charm, holds the film together. But it’s not as pacey as the first film. Balabanov starts taking patriotic detours designed to convince the home audience that America too has its deficiencies. The gap between white and black, have and have-not. Add that to what has already become perilously close to a travelogue (complete with sightseeing montage sequences) and things really start to silt up.
The soundtrack charges forwards regardless, with music designed to appeal to the youthful audiences of 2000. Viktor – a sexist, racist homophobe of the old Soviet school – is milked for his comedy value. A Russian expat prostitute Dasha (Darya Yurgens) adds street smarts. The needle between Russian and Ukrainian mafias is explored in a way that seems more significant over 20 years later (as I type the Russian war on Ukraine is in full flow).
There’s lots to get hold of. But more isn’t always better. At least Danila’s knight errant persona holds true and the film remains as charming and likeable as its star, but it’s undeniably flabby. A Brother 3 was mooted. It never got made.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022