I really should know better given the track record of picking movies to be extremely excited for. Brothers by Blood, a small-scale Philadelphia crime flick about torn family loyalties, wouldn’t seem an obvious choice to on anybody’s shortlist. But if you know me, then you know the combination of sensitive bruiser Matthias Schoenaerts, Joel Kinnaman, and Maika Monroe is going to attract me like a moth to flame. Schoenearts, in particular, tries to squeeze as much life out of this overly-familiar story as possible, but doesn’t get nearly enough help.
Brothers by Blood (formerly-titled The Sound of Philadelphia, which it should’ve stuck with) stars Schoenaerts as Peter, raised as much in the family’s crime business as his wild-child cousin Michael (Kinnaman). The two are, as the title suggests, brothers more than anything else, but it’s Peter who is the relatively sane one, choosing to slip into the background of the Philadelphia boxing scene.
As a Schoenaerts super fan, I got a thrill seeing him back in the ring again, carrying that same dangerous-but-somber energy as in his breakout film, Rust & Bone. It’s something he does extremely well, as seen in numerous films prior to this one. What he doesn’t do well? Play an Irishman. Because he’s not Irish or remotely close to it. Then again, neither does Kinnaman. One is Belgian, the other Swedish. Their attempts to play Philly Irish are…well, comically bad, and an unnecessary wrinkle to their characters.
As adults, Michael’s hot-headed nature has him ruling his corner of the underworld like he’s Sonny Corleone. There isn’t a fight Michael won’t pick, or a victim he won’t abuse. Fancying himself a supporter of Trump because “he’s a billionaire”, Michael matches the soon-to-be ex-President’s preference to rule by fear, covering his lack of ability with terror. When he makes an irrational buy of a racehorse, only to see the animal get hurt, he not only has the animal killed but the trainer victimized. When a young boxer at Peter’s gym shows promise, he tries to bully him into submission.
A reckoning is coming, one that will see Michael faced against the Italians in a war he can’t win. The vast bulk of Brothers by Blood is Peter attempting to stay in the middle without ruffling any feathers. His attempts to talk Michael out of his violent tendencies land on deaf ears, but he won’t leave his only remaining family all alone. Flashbacks explain his hesitance to flee. The two have been close ever since Peter lost his entire family to a tragedy, compounded by a reckless, alcoholic father (Ryan Phillippe, quite good here) who also used his mob strength like a weapon.
There’s no tension here. Michael’s fate is inevitable and writer/director Jérémie Guez isn’t subtle about it. The movie lurches along, dragged deeper by the repeated flashbacks contributing little. Drab, shadowy cinematography, the trademark of small-scale “gritty” crime dramas, creates an atmosphere of a place you don’t want to spend any time watching. Schoenaerts has some of his best moments opposite Monroe, the much-younger actress playing a former flame who now serves drinks at a friend’s bar. That friend is Jimmy (the always-welcome Paul Schneider), a nervous-sort who has good reason to be nervous as his business partner is…well, it’s Michael, and he wants his money. The love story feels tacked on, and hits a dead end. Jimmy’s story goes exactly where you think it’s going to.
It’s interesting to see Schoenaerts and Kinnaman side by side as both are towering, intimidating figures who have frequently leaned on sensitive portrayals. Schoenaerts is like a giant bear occupying every inch of the screen with his presence, which puts Kinnaman in the rare position of seeming tiny, even frail in stature, which makes sense because Michael is a very small human being. In general, there’s nothing wrong with the cast at all. A family crime saga with this ensemble would be amazing under virtually any other circumstances, but Brothers by Blood squanders the talent at its disposal. For what it’s worth, the film has been tinkered with repeatedly, recut time and again, and perhaps during that process it lost not just The Sound of Philadelphia, but the soul.