Last year young Sergei Bodrov Jr. made a strong impression as a decent Russian soldier captured by Chechen forces in his father's Oscar-nominated "Prisoners of the Mountains," a stunning evocation of the tragedy of war.
Now Bodrov is back, again playing an innocent young Russian soldier, but in an entirely different kind of movie. Alexei Babalabanov's corrosive "Brother," Russia's No. 1 box-office attraction for 1997, drops Bodrov's Danila in today's still magnificent but decidedly derelict St. Petersburg to give us a coolly detached yet raw, unflinching report on impoverished post-Soviet Russia, suggesting that the law of the jungle is fast becoming the law of the land. Considering that the current, intensified state of crisis in Russia is making headlines, the U.S. release of "Brother" couldn't be more timely.
Rugged and deep-voiced yet boyish-looking, Danila is an essentially sweet-natured young man, uneducated but smarter and a quicker learner than we would have ever imagined; it's a tribute to Bodrov's talent and presence that this evolution is so completely credible. With nothing much more than rock music on his mind, Danila, once discharged, heads for St. Petersburg to look up his considerably older brother Viktor (Viktor Suhorukov), who lives in relative comfort because he's become a hitman for the underworld.
Inevitably, Danila teams up with Viktor to knock off a Chechen gangster (a guy who likes to talk in rhyming proverbs, a nod to eccentric gangsters of American comic strips like Dick Tracy).
Of course, the hit proves not so easy to pull off, but Babalabanov isn't really interested in his plot, which is murky, at least for those of us relying on subtitles. His intent is to reveal the slow but sure corruption of Danila in a time and place where there seems so little alternative to crime simply in order to survive. The chaotic, casual and dangerous life in St. Petersburg would seem to include everyone there, including those who resist crime. Danila is turning into a brutal man confident with weapons, yet he continues to hold on to some sense of decency--at least for the moment.
The absolute best scene in a film of numerous memorable sequences occurs when Danila is holding an innocent man temporarily hostage. As this poor guy is becoming consumed with terror, Danila strikes up a conversation with him that is as friendly as if the two were sitting at a bar. It is as darkly funny as it is disturbing, suggesting
how detached Danila has become from his acts of violence.
Instead of following a strong, easy-to-follow narrative line Babalabanov jumps from one situation to the next, which takes getting used to. It's worth the effort though because his approach captures such a terrific sense of immediacy, heightened by a rock score by Slava Bustov, who appears briefly as himself.
Danila crosses paths with lots of people: Kat (Mariya Zhukova), a pretty girl who lives for getting high on drugs and rock; Sveta (Svetlana Pismichenko), a streetcar driver who saves Danila's life and pays dearly for getting involved with him; and Hoffmann (Yuri Kuznetsov), a German-born street vendor who becomes a father figure to Danila. By the time "Brother" is over, Danila has in effect become Viktor--but at a price of which he is not yet aware.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film includes much casual violence, some blunt language.
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Sergei Bodrov Jr.: Danila
Viktor Suhorukov: Viktor
Sveta: Svetlana Pismichenko
Kat: Mariya Zhukova
Yuri Kuznetsov: Hoffmann
A Kino International release of a co-production of STW Film Co. and GosKino of Russia. Director Alexei Babalabanov. Producer Sergei Selianov. Writer-director Alexei Babalabanov. Cinematographer Sergei Astakhov. Editor Marina Lipartija. Music Slava Bustov. Production designer Vladimir Kartashov. In Russian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.