Sergei Brodrov, Jr. stars as Danila Bagrov, a baby-faced young man recently out of the army, wandering directionless through life. After a minor skirmish in his home town, Danila journeys to the city of Petersburg, where his older brother Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov) is a well-established criminal working as a contract killer, who has run afoul of other gangsters. Viktor pawns off his latest assignment -- killing a rival crime boss -- to his younger brother, setting off a series of events that forces Danila to blast his way through Petersburg's underworld. But the more havoc Danila causes, the deeper in trouble Viktor gets, leading the older brother to continually betray his younger sibling in order to save his own life.
Set in what was then contemporary Russia, Brother offers a grimy look at post-communism Petersburg, where consumerism has transformed an oppressed society into a decadent society. Balabanov is never too preachy with his indictments or his observations, but they exist none the less. When the Danila first arrives in Petersburg, he befriends the German (Yuri Kuznetsov), an aging, homeless immigrant who sums up part of what Balabanov is trying to say. "This city is a frightening force. And the bigger the city, the stronger it is. It sucks you in. Only the strong can climb out," says the German.
Indeed, the German is right, for it isn't long before Danila is sucked into the world of crime and violence. But there is something different about Danila that separates him from the other thugs around him. He is clearly driven by an unspoken moral code that sets his brutally violent acts apart from those he encounters on his deadly journey. For being a morally ambiguous, cold-blooded killer, Danila exists by a code of honor that places honesty and defending the weak above all else. This makes Danila an anti-hero cut from the classic mold of such characters. Later in the film, when Danila says to the German, "You said the city is a force. But here everyone's weak," it is obvious that he is not quite like anyone else.
Brodrov, the son of acclaimed Russian filmmaker Sergei Brodrov, Sr., was catapulted into stardom by Brother. Brodrov's youthful, innocent face makes for a dynamic contrast to his deadly actions. And while Danila claims that his time in the Army was spent as a clerk shuffling papers, the implication is that he served in a much more violent capacity. It is Brodrov's performance that makes Brother work, and it is the glaring dichotomy between his looks and actions that makes Danila such a memorable character.
Balabanov's directing recalls both Mike Hodges' classic British gangster film Get Carter, as well as the stylish work of Takeshi "Beat" Kitano. Like Hodges and Kitano, Balabanov sets a deliberate pace, often creating a meditative mood, off-set by intense explosions of violence. The key with films like Brother is that violence is used as punctuation mark, as opposed to the actual statement.
Several years after Brother, Balabanov and Brodrov reunited for an equally compelling sequel. Brother 2 is one of those rare films that works as well as the predecessor. Sadly, the exciting duo of director and actor will never be able to revisit the classic anti-hero they created, as Brodrov was killed in a landslide in 2002.