In researching this celebration of gangster flicks, we were delighted to learn how many countries have contributed to the genre.
We knew, of course, of the grand tradition of French gangster films, dating back to the 1930s and Pepe le Moko. There are seven British entries on our Top 100, from 1971’s Get Carter to 2004’s Layer Cake. German and Italian directors created masterpieces of mob life and, more recently, their counterparts from Japan and Hong Kong turned the subject in a whole new direction. In all, projects from 12 different countries crack our Top 100.
But it goes way beyond that. In reviewing hundreds of possibilities, we discovered an International House of Mobster Movies. Among them:
• Sodoma Reykjavik, an Icelandic comedy about a teen who becomes embroiled in a conflict between a liquor smuggler and aspiring goodfella while searching for his mom’s missing remote control.
• Cyclo, the story of an orphaned Vietnamese bicycle taxi operator who gets taken in by a mob queen known as Boss Lady. In one brutal scene, Cyclo witnesses a hit man repeatedly stab a victim while singing lullabies.
• Kiler, a funny Polish tale of mistaken identity in which an unassuming cabbie named Jerzy Kiler (which translates to “killer”) is believed by both police and the local crime king to be a contract murderer.
• A Bittersweet Life, a sadistic South Korean entry combining 1950s noir with 1990s John Woo. The story centers on a gangster caught between loyalty to his boss and affection to his boss’s girlfriend.
And this one. Brother (which reads as Brat in Russian) is the portrait of an Army veteran who sets out to start a new life in St. Petersburg, but winds up as an icy contract killer.
Point is, as long as organized crime exists, creative people around the world will find new ways to tell stories about it. And we, as viewers, will continue to be both shocked and entertained.
The conflict in Brother is not between gangsters and the law, since no law appears to exist in 1990s Russia. Rather, it pits the local gangsters against invading Chechens trying to take their territory. There is an irony, of course, since the movie was filmed exactly as the Russian military had overrun the breakaway Republic of Chechnya.
The title has a double meaning. Bratva, or Brotherhood, is the name for the Chechen criminal subculture that landed in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the 1990s. And the subject of the story, Danila Bagrov (Sergey Bodrov Jr.), is a bored young man who goes to visit his role model of an older brother in the big city, unaware that Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov) is now a mobster.
Although, truth be told, Viktor is not a very good mobster. He wears the requisite flashy clothes and silk underwear of an up-and-coming crime boss, but he’s got all the cool and cunning of Fredo Corleone. It’s clear that neither he nor his muscle men can hold off their Chechen challengers. So Viktor puts his hopes on his younger brother, just released from military service.
“Did you learn to shoot in army?” Viktor asks hopefully.
“Not really,” says Danila.
“Were you a hero in the war?”
“No. I was just a clerk at headquarters.”
No matter. Viktor gives his kid brother a gun and some cash and sends him out to hunt down the enemy. And, as it turns out, the boy’s a natural. Within days, dead Chechens are falling all over town. And, for good measure, young Danila shoots a few of his brother’s underlings when they threaten to rub out an innocent witness.
There’s a strange dynamic here. Baby-faced Danila is sometimes portrayed as a sweet, naïve kid. He’s quick to fall in love, which he does twice. His treasured possession is a Sony Discman, and he’s obsessed with the music of a real band of the era named Nautilius Pompilius. (Their songs, by the way, sound like a bad cross between country and klezmer. They’re horrid enough to make anyone want to leave Russia.) In many ways, Danila is a typical overeager teen.
At the same time, he immediately takes to the role of hardened killer. Danila embraces the power he commands when he flashes a gun. And he shows no remorse—not even a change of expression—as he shoots his way through the city’s underworld.
You wind up not knowing whether to root for or against him. At the end, after conquering St. Petersburg, he heads for Moscow, where you expect he’ll create as much damage.
Brother was directed by Aleksey Balabanov, who’s been called Russia’s David Lynch. The movie created a stir in that country, not unlike earlier controversies in the United States over movies like A Clockwork Orange or Natural Born Killers, which were said to glamorize violence. We don’t think it reaches the level of those movies, artistically or in its level of brutality.
HIT: The strongest element of Brother is its portrayal of Boris Yeltsin’s 1990s Russia. This is a country in social and economic freefall. The skies are always gray or raining, the infrastructure is decaying (as are everyone’s teeth) and there’s a general bleakness of mood. Needless to say, this is not a real pick-me-up film.
MISS: Some of the dialogue doesn’t translate well to English. Like this line: “Bite off more than you can chew and you end up at the zoo.” Somehow, that’s supposed to be a witticism.
GOOF: There’s a scene midway through the film in which the Chechens come searching for Danila at his girlfriend’s apartment. She’s supposed to be home alone, but you can see a member of the film crew duck down in the hallway trying to get out of the way of the camera shot.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Young Bodrov is a primal throwback to Cagney in The Public Enemy and Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, a charismatic killer with a wan smile, a goofy, junior-high-bully’s voice, a dim intelligence, and a disquieting sweetness, which can appear on display just moments after he’s saturated a seedy enemy with hot bullets.”—Gerald Peary, Boston Phoenix
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Moderate. Most of the victims fall off screen.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: While the dialogue is in Russian (with haphazard subtitles) the words “business” and “money” are in English. And when a big contract is paid off, it is paid in American dollars.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: See it once and then see the four other foreign films highlighted at the start of this article.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Battleship Potemkin (1925) by Sergei M. Eisenstein. Nah, just kidding. Try The Wounds, a 1998 film about two teens in war-torn and decaying Serbia, fighting to survive as gangsters.
BODY COUNT: Eleven.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”