BROTHERS (2016) review

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Tiejin (Ethan Li) and Bingsheng (Peter Ho) grew up together, two homeless boys looking out for each other in an unnamed dangerous city, until one day Bingsheng was sent to prison for killing a mobster who was attacking his brother. A decade later he’s released, now a hardened, cynical beast of a man. Not long after they’re reunited the brothers get into more trouble and are drafted by force in the army. After a failed attempt at desertion they’re separated again, and through a twist of fate Tiejin finds himself fighting for the opposite side. Years pass and he has now become a tough squadron leader, tasked with escorting an all-women orchestra to a remote fort where they are to perform for the morale of the troops. It’s not long before they’re under attack from the enemy, and the brothers are reunited again, this time pointing a gun at each other.

The most striking thing about Agan’s Brothers is how wholesale it borrows from the visual style of Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller Sin City. Starkly black and white images streaked with occasional flashes of color (preferably red), with comic book-inspired flourishes and entirely CGI, pared-down backgrounds. At first it is to the point of blatant plagiarism, with very specific visual ideas lifted from the 2005 film and its follow-up. Then the film transitions from an urban setting to a mountainous region and the similarities become less obvious and jarring. But the problem is that beneath this derivative albeit entertaining sense of style lies a very simplistic story.

Agan has probably watched John Woo’s Bullet in the Head a few times and aims for the same theme of brotherhood tragically torn apart by war and betrayal, but his two main characters are so thinly written both in backstory and in individual features, and the setting – a WWII-like war where neither side is named – is so vague, that the film is constantly running on empty, unable to back its overwhelmingly epic style with the requisite narrative and emotional power. The all-women orchestra serves as furniture, its member interchangeable save for one (played by Xia Zitong), a pianist with whom is sketched a risibly perfunctory love triangle involving the brothers.

Still, the film rarely bores, thanks to a brisk pace and a few forgettable but nevertheless entertaining battle scenes that involve more blade-fighting than shooting. But its saving grace is without a doubt Peter Ho, who eats up the scenery in a performance both enjoyably over-the-top and strangely affecting, a raspy-voiced collection of grunts and yells, with sardonic smirking and manly sobbing thrown in for good measure. Next to such a all-obliterating display of charismatic overacting, Ethan Li simply ceases to exist onscreen.

Long Story Short: Basically entertaining but stylistically derivative and narratively simplistic, Brothers is only memorable for Peter Ho’s one-man-show of charismatic overacting. **

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