Film Review: Brothers: Blood Against Blood

Anyone who's seen the Tom Hardy-Joel Edgerton-Nick Nolte drama 'Warrior,' directed by Gavin O'Connor, will find no surprises in India’s 'Brothers,' a slick, extremely close variation on the 2011 U.S. film...so close that it's actually credited onscreen.
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David (Akshay Kumar) and Monty (Sidharth Malhotra) were once deeply devoted siblings, their close bond forged in the fire of a brutally difficult childhood. Their father, Garson "Gary" Fernandes (Jackie Shroff), once a popular mixed-martial-arts fighter, is a womanizing alcoholic partial to talking with his fists. Their beloved mother, the loving and strong-willed Maria, devoted her life to protecting her boys from their father's wrath...despite the fact that, strictly speaking, one of her boys wasn't even hers by blood: Monty is the product of one of Gary's many liaisons with other women.

Gary trains both his sons in MMA fighting until the family is shattered when, in a drunken rage, he accidentally kills Maria and is sent to prison for seven years. When he emerges, Monty and David are estranged. The former is scraping by as a bare-knuckle, back-alley MMA fighter, while the latter has chosen brains over brawn: He's married, a high-school physics teacher and father to an adorable little girl named after her grandmother but known to all, most unfortunately, as PooPoo.

At this point, the plot machinery that will justify the "Blood Against Blood" part of the title grinds into high gear. The disgraced Garson emerges from prison and begins to coach Monty, just as trashy sports promoter Mr. Briganza decides to introduce India to mixed martial arts via a flashy, high-stakes spectacle that will pit ten of the world's best fighters against one another in a series of brutal elimination rounds that will leave one man standing. David, meanwhile, has learned that PooPoo has aggressive kidney disease; the only way he can afford to pay for treatment is to get back into the ring...you see where this is going.

For all its predictability, which is as much a product of the life-or-death sports-movie formula as the fact that it's a remake (the 2011 U.S. drama Warrior, in all fairness, was just as by-the-numbers), Brothers: Blood Against Blood is a surprisingly fast-paced and engaging drama rooted in subjects that never grow old: the codes of masculinity, sibling rivalry, family ties, and the burden of a poisonously bad upbringing that must nonetheless be confronted and dealt with before the involved parties can even hope to get free of the past.

As was also the case with Warrior, Brothers stands or falls on the quality of the acting, which is gratifyingly high...or perhaps the better term is low-key, given that many Bollywood performances are pitched at a theatrical level better suited to comedies and flat-out melodramas than emotionally harrowing dramas. Veteran actor Jackie Shroff (in the role originated by Nick Nolte) is convincingly battered and steeped in self-loathing as he gradually realizes that his comeback as a trainer is going to end in a parent's worst nightmare: his two boys pitted against each other in mortal combat. And Kumar and Malhotra are equally good as the brothers previously played, respectively, by Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy. And also in keeping with Bollywood tradition, music is a strong counterpoint to the drama, though the film contains only one real production number, a metaphorical one in which a snake-hipped money honey in a slithery gold dress does a shimmy-shaking dance to the evils of lust for material things.

Curiously, Brothers' fidelity to the strong source material does work against it in one distracting way. While in Warrior the fact that Nick Nolte's blue-collar Pittsburgh clan is Roman Catholic is so in line with the overall milieu that it hardly registers, the fact that the Fernandes family of India is also conspicuously Catholic (Oh, that giant weeping Jesus tattoo!) is almost as puzzling as the fact that their surname is, well, Fernandes. There may well be a well-known enclave of Indian Catholics with Latin surnames, but for American viewers it's a little puzzling and an extra subtitle or two would have eliminated the kind of nitpicking brain-worm that pulls viewers right out of otherwise compelling films.

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