Aleksei Balabanov’s sequel to Brat, Brat 2, is at once quite a bit more and quite a bit less than the movie which kicked it off. The first film traded heavily on having an indie-film feel, which has been totally jettisoned in this film for a million-and-a-half dollar budget, a professional film crew, international set pieces, chase scenes and lots of vintage weaponry. Brat was no blockbuster. Neither, really, is the sequel – but it comes close.
The premise of Brat 2 lies in its transplanting the main characters from the first film – who were fish-out-of-water in Saint Petersburg in a renovated Dostoevskian style – into a similar fish-out-of-water situation in Chicago. It’s a premise that seems to work fairly well, and Brat 2 does deliver us a rather tart commentary on life ‘at the bottom’ in both countries. The story takes us fairly quickly from Moscow to a much more international setting in short order, but once the characters board their Aeroflot planes events take their time in unwinding, giving the film a slow-burn, meditative and almost brooding pace around the middle.
Warning: spoilers below.
The events of Brat 2 take place about a year after the first film ends. Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov, Jr) is living in Moscow with a couple of friends and fellow-veterans of the Chechen Wars, the museum guard Ilya (Kirill Pirogov), and the bank security man Kostya (Aleksandr D’yachenko). The three of them do an interview for a Moscow TV station about their experiences in the war, during which Bagrov meets the pop star Irina Saltykova (herself) and gets her mobile number. Back in Danila’s hometown, his mother and his brother Viktor (Viktor Suhorukov) watch Danila’s interview – and in a distinct rôle reversal from the first film, their mother tells Viktor to go visit Danila in Moscow and make something of himself instead of being a burden on her.
We learn that Kostya’s brother Mitya (also Aleksandr D’yachenko), an NHL hockey star playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, got himself mixed up with the Ukrainian mafia in Chicago and has been forced to pay most of his salary to the local crime boss Richard Mennis (Gary Houston). Kostya asks his boss Valentin Belkin (Sergei Makovetsky) for help, but ends up being killed by Belkin’s henchmen for his ‘request’, as Belkin and Mennis have agreed to a somewhat risky joint business venture. Danila finds his body, and he and Ilya go into hiding and start planning to get even with Belkin. Viktor arrives in Moscow and joins up with them. After outwitting, outdriving and outgunning Belkin’s henchmen, Danila corners Belkin at a recital where his son is performing and threatens him at gunpoint. Belkin lies to Danila and says that it was Mennis who had Kostya killed. Danila decides to spare Belkin on account of his young son, who recited a patriotic poem ‘Я устал, что у меня есть огромная семья’ by Crimean playwright Vladimir Orlov at his recital.
Ilya makes plans for Danila and Viktor to travel to America to deal with Mennis. He sends Viktor to Chicago and Danila to New York, from which he can drive to Chicago. This turns out to be a wise precaution, because Belkin sics his henchmen on Danila, hoping to get him at the airport. Because they aren’t expecting Viktor, they let him pass – and Danila doesn’t show on the flight he’s supposed to be on. Belkin learns about Viktor’s past in the mafia, warns Mennis about both Viktor and Danila, and has Irina’s phone bugged. (In some comic asides, Irina calls up Danila to ask where he is; Danila tells her he’s in Tula, and Belkin’s henchmen try without success to catch him on the road there.) Danila buys a car in New York from a Russian dealer who assures him it will get him ‘to San Francisco and back’, starts driving it to Chicago, and the car promptly breaks down before he can get into Pennsylvania. He ends up having to hitch a ride with a trucker, Ben Johnson (Ray Toler), with whom he strikes up a friendship, despite not knowing any English and Johnson not knowing any Russian.
Danila has difficulty navigating Chicago with no English, and tries unsuccessfully to contact Mitya. He gets run over by a news anchor, Lisa (Lisa Jeffrey), and manages to charm his way into her apartment and her bed for a night. However, still in need of a translator, he tries to get in touch with a Russian prostitute he met on the street, Dasha (Darya Lesnikova), and ends up on the wrong side of her pimp, and (briefly) on the wrong side of racist Chicago cops. As in the first movie, Danila uses homemade weapons (a shotgun made from plywood, an old pipe, wires and matches, filled with nails) and his wits to arm himself and defend Dasha. He ultimately kills her pimp and she joins up with him. Danila runs into Viktor – who had gotten into trouble with the Ukrainian mafia and the police – and manages to connect with Mitya.
The three of them try to boil some crawdads on Lake Michigan, and the three of them get into a discussion about life in America. Viktor loves the idea that in America one can become powerful by getting money. Dasha is quite a bit more jaded. Having come to New York as a student during glasnost’, she found herself going through a bad marriage and a messy divorce, ultimately having to sell her body to make ends meet. Danila floats the proposal that she can go home, although she’s initially sceptical of the idea. They are interrupted by a black man who tries to warn them of lake pollution, and who storms off when Danila calls him a ‘negr’ in Russian, not knowing that it’s a racial slur. The man comes back with company, and Danila shoots at their feet, scaring them off.
Danila learns that Mennis operates through a nightclub, ‘Club Metro’, which he uses as a front for his criminal enterprises. He stashes an SMG in the men’s bathroom in the back one night, and then uses it the next night to kill all of Mennis’s employees, who use the back of the club to deal in drugs and snuff films. Danila steals the money from the club and learns where Mennis’s ‘legitimate’ office is. Having once been turned back at the lobby, he climbs the safety stairs (reciting Orlov’s poem the whole way up) and smashes his way through a window, gunning his way into Mennis’s office. There he confronts Mennis at gunpoint over a game of chess. Seeing his brother’s picture – the same one the Ukrainians were using to track him down – on the table, he tells Mennis he disagrees with his brother about money being power. In his view, power belongs to those in the right. Having gotten his message across, he tells a frightened Mennis to give him the money he owes Mitya.
Danila gives the money to Mitya and tells him not to worry about the contract anymore. He and Dasha visit Lisa to borrow her phone; Dasha translates for him to call Ben the trucker for help. Viktor, in the meanwhile, has been tracked down by the cops and gets arrested, though he calls out to Danila as he’s cuffed and led to a squad car that he’s staying (in America). The police put out an APB on Danila and Dasha, but Ben escorts the two of them to the airport with no one noticing. At check-in, a man examines Dasha’s passport and tells her that her visa expired years ago and she won’t be able to enter the country again; she just flips him the bird and gets on her flight. At the airport, Irina Saltykova calls Danila again and he assures her that he’s coming back to Moscow. The implication is that Belkin’s joint venture with Mennis failed, and his Russian creditors have come to ‘collect’.
Brat 2 explores some of the same themes that the first movie did, including (naturally) brotherhood, national feeling and œconomic distress – and of course the question of whether money really is power. Balabanov has a markedly cynical take, both on the promise of the ‘American Dream’ and on its parallel in Russia: Belkin and Mennis are more alike than different, including in their palpable physical cowardice when confronted by Danila. And this is nowhere more fervently expressed than in the philosophy espoused by Viktor, who really does seem to think that money can buy him whatever he wants and that America is the best place to do it.
But Balabanov revels in showing the darker side of American life. He is certainly drawing deliberate parallels and equivalencies in some instances between the materialism of Russia under Eltsin and the class of new biznismen, and that of America. Girls, booze and cars accompany organised crime life in both places. The Russian cab drivers in both Moscow and Chicago both speak with such open cynicism about life (and about Russia under Gorbachev) that Danila asks them if they’re brothers. The fascism of Ilya’s weapons-dealing ‘friend’ in Moscow is paralleled by the racism of the Chicago cops. American storefronts in New York show Russian signs, and signs in Ukrainian in Chicago: the only difference is in the blatancy of the advertising in those street scenes. And of course the plight of the two brothers at the heart of the movie, the ill-fated bank security guard Kostya and the exploited hockey player Mitya, is the same. It’s noteworthy that the only two ‘good’ Americans he shows are the Midwestern working-class truck driver Ben, and the black TV journalist Lisa.
The film is accused of being Russian nationalist, even chauvinist, but this seems contradicted by the fact that in the movie, the real instances where Russian nationalism is expressed – for example, by Belkin’s son Fedya or by Danila when reciting Orlov’s poem – it is done so in a spirit of profound naïveté. Danila saves Belkin on account of his son despite Belkin using every opportunity to try to kill him. And Danila predictably gets cheated by the Russian car salesman in New York who assures him that ‘Russians don’t cheat Russians’. Literally the only in-film validation of Danila’s nationalism, is when he manages to convince Dasha to go back to Russia, and that is done in a remarkably understated way. ‘What would I do there?’ she asks; and Danila answers: ‘What have you managed to do here?’
But regarding the central question of the film, money and power – the ironic conclusion seems to be that, particularly for this director, an emphatic no. Money does not seem to equal power. In losing the ‘indie’ feel of the first movie, it also loses its emotional impetus. Brat 2 is a far less moving and far less profound film than its predecessor, despite being in every possible way more technically proficient an action movie: bigger budget, better effects, better editing, better stunts, better camera work. The music – courtesy bands like Bi-2, DDT, Agatha Christie and Irina Saltykova herself as well as Nautilus – is still excellent: a good glimpse into what Danila is playing in his Walkman (or through the stereo of Ben’s truck). In the first film, the sudden, understated nature of the mortal violence had a profoundly disturbing effect. Here, the violence loses its impact on occasion for being over-the-top: as when a laughing Viktor sprays his pursuers with machine-gun fire from a Maxim from the back of his stolen Volvo until both of their cars explode, and then Danila flings a German grenade in the back seat to destroy the evidence. Sometimes the viewer can’t tell if he’s watching a Hollywood-style crime thriller or a parody of one. Sometimes it feels like Balabanov himself couldn’t decide.
At the same time, Brat 2 is still a fun, cheeky, politically-incorrect, occasionally-cheesy action film with considerable rewatch value. Sergei Bodrov, Jr is still sterling as Danila, and his supporting cast all deliver themselves admirably of their performances, and even the two-hour runtime doesn’t feel stuffed or drawn-out at all. This one gets a recommendation from me, with the qualification that it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first installment.