Alexei Balabanov's "Brother," now showing at NYC's Film Forum, is the first
post-Soviet film that accurately reflects life after the fall of Communism. This cynical,
hard-boiled gangster film does not deal in nostalgia for some glorious Stalinist past,
however. Like many new post-Soviet intellectuals, Balabanov is mesmerized by the callous
and hedonistic society taking shape. The brave new world of drugs, rock-and-roll, crime
and nihilism might be dragging the world down around them, but the characters in
"Brother" plan to have a good time in the process, like a party on the deck of
the sinking Titanic.
Danila (played by Sergei Bodrov, Russia's hottest new actor) has just arrived in St.
Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, to look up his older brother Viktor (Victor Sohurukov), a
free-lance hit-man. Danila has just finished serving in the Russian army and is
unemployed. Without any fanfare, Viktor drafts his younger brother into the family
business. Viktor asks him if he was taught how to shoot a gun in the army. The laconic
younger brother replies that they took him to the firing range like everybody else, but he
spent most of his time at h.q.
The running joke of the entire film is that the baby-faced, sweet-natured younger brother
turns out to be the most proficient killing machine since Rambo. Although he never brags
about his prowess, clearly he has become an expert on the battlefields of Chechnya or some
other post-Soviet killing ground. It is in fact a Chechen gangster who is Danila's first
target. Danila first rents a room downtown near the market where the Chechen gang boss
takes his morning constitutional and kickbacks from merchants. He then stakes out the area
in disguise, and once he settles on a plan, goes back to his room where he constructs a
bomb made of matchstick heads and gunpowder to use against the Chechen.
When Danila is not busy killing bad guys, he behaves like any young Russian. He listens to
his favorite rock-and-roll music, played by the Russian group Nautilus, on his beloved
Sony Walkman. He picks up a street drug peddler after getting paid for his first hit. The
punked-out young woman takes him first to a disco and then to a private party where
everybody is smoking pot, drinking vodka from the bottle and listening to the latest
rock-and-roll. All the young murderer wants to do is talk about his favorite band,
The telephone wakes Danila early next morning, in the middle of a terrible hangover. His
brother has lined up another job for him. He is to accompany two creepy hit-men on a raid
against a rival gangster. When they burst in to his apartment, only one of his underlings
is there, whom they bind and gag. Danila asks the other hit-men and the captive if they
have any aspirin. When they reply no, he wanders into a party in progress upstairs. People
are listening to rock-and-roll, smoking pot, playing pool and conversing pleasantly. They
give him some aspirin and invite him to stay and enjoy himself but he can't stay because
he has business downstairs that must be taken care of.
After returning downstairs to rejoin his fellow killers, he answers a knock at the door.
It turns out to be a invitee to the party upstairs who has wandered into the wrong place.
They pull him into the apartment and tell him to keep quiet and he won't be harmed. It
turns out that the new captive is a music video director whom Danila immediately
befriends. He also promises him that no harm will come to him as long as he is there. He
then starts to pump the terrified man all about the music business and raves to him about
Nautilus, his favorite group.
After several hours, when it becomes clear that their intended target is not going to show
up, Danila's fellow hit-men stab the bound and gagged lieutenant to death. Just as they
are about to do the same thing to the director, Danila intervenes and kills them instead.
He tells the frightened director that he always keeps his promises.
Danila might be a professional killer, but true to gangster film formalism, he is a
professional killer with a heart. In an earlier scene, he steps into a confrontation
between a cowed streetcar conductor and two hooligans who refuse to pay their fare. He
sticks a gun in their face and makes them pay their fare. Danila's attitude must strike a
strong chord in Russian audiences, who have made this the highest-grossing film of 1997.
Perhaps the only way to deal with the scum of Russian society is through vigilante action,
like the kind celebrated in Charles Bronson's "Death Wish" films.
Balabanov has clearly immersed himself in American B movies and has made a movie to
compete with them on their own terms. But "Brother" has more intelligence than
this. You sympathize with the main character, who has lost his moral moorings, because the
rest of society has also. There is no other way to survive. Danila allows himself to get
sucked into the jungle, but tries at the same time to preserve his own integrity. More
than any other professional killer in cinema history, Danila will remind one of the
samurai Toshiro Mifune played in Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The out-of-work swordsman hires
himself out to gangsters and warlords who are making life hell for the peasants, but
brings peace by killing the rivals, one faction after another.
Organized crime in the former Soviet Union is not only a inviting topic for film-makers,
it is also a genuine problem for those trying to introduce capitalism there. Fred Weir
writes in "Revolution from Above" that 70 to 80 percent of private industrial
and financial institutions are forced to make payments of 10 to 20 percent of their annual
revenues to organized crime. Two members of the Russian parliament were murdered by
hit-men during 1994-95. Even more alarmingly for those of us living in New York City or
wherever real estate is at a premium, Weir states that some residents of well-located
Moscow apartments have been murdered in scams aimed at obtaining ownership of newly
Meanwhile Russia has just received a $20 billion IMF loan, which nobody expects to bring
the ailing economy to life. Gangsterism will not disappear either, since it is endemic to
the sort of capitalism that is taking root there. In a society that worships material
success but that does not give outsiders a means to such success, criminality is just
another way to succeed. Meanwhile there is convincing evidence that drugs are as important
to the Mexican economy as oil is to Saudi Arabia. The downwardly spiraling world economy
practically insures that crime will continue to be big business in Russia and the rest of