Set in the gritty underworld of the new Russia, Brother follows the life of Danila (Sergei Bodrov, Jr.), an ex-soldier who claims to have sat out the war as a clerk at HQ. However, Danila's knowledge of guns and explosives, and his skillful assassination of a petty criminal, lead you to believe that he served in the Russian equivalent of America's 'special forces,' that hotbed of modern Hollywood psychopaths. Owing a debt to our classic gangster films and to the Scorsese/Tarantino brand of crime films, Russian director Alexei Balabanov paints a frightening portrait of modern-day St. Petersburg, home to Danila's hit-man brother (Victor Suhorukov) and an assortment of familiar goodfellas who vie for control of the local territory. While Danila's motivation for becoming involved in his brother's 'business' is unclear, he rids the city of several unsavory characters with no pangs of conscience, and collects enough money doing it to escape and continue his aimless existence in another city.

Nihilism isn't a good basis for narrative filmmaking-that's as evident in recent American crime dramas as it is here. Balabanov builds an entire film around a character with no apparent motivation. Although there may be a cultural barrier which prevents American audiences from understanding the source of Danila's desultory existence, since it isn't evident, Brother ends up being episodic and rather pointless. You simply wait for the next bullet to fly and for the inevitable spurt of blood and guts to appear.

Redeeming the film somewhat is an excellent cast, from newcomer Bodrov, reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando-he is the recent star of Prisoner of the Mountains-to veteran Yury Kuznetsov, who plays German, a peddler and Danila's only friend. It is Bodrov's performance that elevates the film to a frightening allegory of modern Russia in which you can't tell the thugs from the good guys, where men like Danila, part Superman-he wants to rid the world of the criminals who exploit the poor-and part psychopath-he kills without conscience-are oddly heroic figures, fit for survival in a morally ambiguous world.

The movie begins when Danila mistakenly wanders onto a movie set and is beaten. It's a harsh, inexplicable act that sets the stage for the strange, random universe Danila inhabits. When, at his mother's urging, he goes to St. Petersburg to join his brother, Danila does so hoping his brother will find him work. Instead of the businessman his mother told him he would find, Danila learns his brother is a professional hit-man. Discovering that he has a contract to kill a well-protected Chechen thug, Danila creates an elaborate scheme to kill the man himself, thereby earning some of the money his brother would have gotten for the hit. However, Danila soon finds himself pursued by the thug's bodyguards. He also creates problems for his brother when the contracting party finds out someone else made the hit. Danila kills all of them eventually, saving his brother in the bargain, overlooking the fact that his brother betrayed him and nearly had him killed. Danila's lack of conscience has a positive side: He forgives everyone. An enigmatic but charming character, Danila has no trouble finding female companionship, carrying on an affair with a married woman whose husband beats her and then with a drug addict who robs him. Although he's abandoned by the married woman and robbed by the drug addict, Danila harbors no ill feelings; in fact, just before he leaves St. Petersburg, he gives Sveta (Svetlana Pismichenko), the married woman, a wad of cash for the doctor bills-he beat up her husband-and the druggie 'getting high' money.

Like all gangster films, Brother plays upon popular prejudices-it's no mistake that the thug Danila kills is Chechen. Russian audiences probably wouldn't mourn the loss of a criminal whose ethnic roots lie with a minority that recently claimed victory over the Russian army. Balabanov himself may revel in this characterization. Inherent in the filmmaker's choice of genre is also a not-so-subtle criticism of America's influence on the new Russia. It's an opinion that may be shared by many Russians who resent the growth of a free-market economy which, in the short term, has done little to improve the lives of ordinary people, and which many believe has engendered a new criminal class. If Danila, his brother and the other criminals share any common motivation, it's greed, and that characteristic can certainly be viewed as the outgrowth of capitalism.

Although the script leaves much to be desired, Balabanov's direction is skillful, and his clever reworking of our film noir characters is quite entertaining. There's Sveta, a Russian Gloria Grahame, who remains loyal to the husband who beats her, and Butusov (Slava Butusov), a grinning criminal who's a dead ringer for Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar. The sensitive but ruthless killer Danila is the bad guy with a good heart that figures in so many classic gangster films. In this one, he gets away, at the end smiling and lying about his army service to the truck driver who picks him up on the road. Never has nihilism had such a charming representative.

--Maria Garcia