A decade ago, “Kidulthood” — a tough, multiracial British teen drama, written by and starring eventual BAFTA winner Noel Clarke — was justly praised for its vibrant energy; two years later, follow-up “Adulthood” saw the actor-scribe step up to add directing duties to the mix. Opening with a montage sketching the salient events of the story so far, third installment “Brotherhood” sees the return of West Londoners Sam Peel (Clarke), nemesis Uncle Curtis (Cornell John) and other familiar faces from the first two films. In this par-for-the-course conclusion to Clarke’s “‘Hood” saga, the key transition is the evolution of the main character’s philosophy: From a trenchant warning not to mess with a boy that has nothing to lose, to the realization that perhaps “the only person more dangerous than someone with nothing to lose is someone who stands to lose everything.”
Having served his time for killing a boy with a baseball bat as a teenager, Sam has now relocated away from edgy Ladbroke Grove. (Quality location work finds time to include real takeout joints from the area, plenty of shots of the unprepossessing Westway flyover, plus extensive shooting in and around Brutalist architecture icon the Trellick Tower.) These days, he’s sitting pretty in a nice terraced house in a less dubious bit of Shepherd’s Bush, though it’s clear he’s not quite at ease with his new life as a solidly respectable father figure.
Having to work multiple unfulfilling jobs to meet his various obligations while his wife has qualified as a lawyer doesn’t help, although this seems to be mostly a problem within Sam’s own head, as he clings to a 20th-century view of male and female roles as provider and nurturer. “I don’t even need it,” his previous partner tells him as he attempts to press cash into her hand for his teenaged daughter’s birthday. “I need it,” he replies.
But as in other British crime pics ranging from the sublime (Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast” stands out within the subgenre) to the ridiculous, our hero’s attempts to leave his dodgy acquaintances in the past prove futile. (After all, diehard fans of the franchise wouldn’t want to forego the return of various old favourites.) It’s not long before Sam is being pursued by a variety of sketchy underground figures. At its best, the film summons a genuinely exciting energy, while Clarke deserves credit for sending himself up in a performance that is rarely vain. Sam’s comfortable belly is contrasted with the younger, harder lads in the gym, and during the third act he breaks down in tears during a sex scene and can’t continue. It’s the kind of resolutely uncool vulnerability most actor-directors shy away from. Nor is his weakness seemingly geared towards gaining our sympathy: Sam remains a bit of an idiot for much of the film.
Other performances are variable: Grime music star Stormzy convinces in his feature debut in the minor role of a gangster who has a crisis of confidence, but it’s Arnold Oceng as best friend Henry who cinches MVP status. Oceng is gifted one of the series’ funniest, most resonant parts as another would-be family man, Henry, who is prepared to help out his pal one last time, even if it does mean spinning ludicrous tales to his missus to explain his various suspect outings and phone calls. A particular highlight sees him using a concealed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle as an imagined weapon. Clarke’s script does a better job than his previous comedy-crime caper “188.8.131.52” of successfully meshing the tonal contrasts of comic and violent elements.
The gratuitously villainous bad guys are largely cardboard cutouts — though with villains this nasty, the fundamental unlikability of Sam Peel as a hero is easier to ignore. There is one exception, and it’s a shame she’s not give more to work with: Tonia Sotiropoulou (graduating from a credit as “Bond’s lover” in “Skyfall”) must shoulder the burden of a ridiculous honeytrap plot, but briefly connects with a measure of genuine pathos later on, when she explains that she is cooperating with the gang because her new role is a step up from how they used to treat her.
This character encapsulates the film’s uneven attitude to women in microcosm; “Brotherhood’s” gender politics are, frankly, messy. Some spiky and welcome attempts have been made to allow female characters to call out sexist chat, and one sex worker is allowed to participate in violent payback against an abusive client.
But no film which credits fully eleven women as either simply “Semi-nude woman” or “Sex slave” is going to win too many awards for female representation, particularly when the performers in question are arranged within deliberately composed frames as just so much eye-catching furniture or sad-eyed livestock. Of course, this view of women is very much endorsed by the male gangsters controlling these women within the narrative, but to choose to allow the grammar of the camerawork to align itself with their toxic perspective feels naively collusive. It’s all too easy to imagine a conversation along the lines of “This is Spinal Tap’s” “Smell the Glove” vignette taking place over the monitor.
A necessary corrective to risible fantasy visions of London offered by both homegrown efforts (“Love, Actually”) and tourist postcards (“Match Point”), “Brotherhood” is still not especially brilliant. But since its U.K. theatrical release last month, it has deservedly connected with its audience — in the absence of a broader range of more authentic and representational mainstream films set in the U.K.’s capital — to the tune of a robust $2.66 million opening weekend. Less commendable, though hardly the film’s fault, are the fights that have reportedly broken out during screenings of the film at one of “Brotherhood’s” major venues, the Stratford Westfield, forcing the East London megaplex to pull further screenings of the film.