This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
There’s an early scene in Brotherhood, the concluding chapter in Noel Clarke’s British Hood trilogy, in which his Sam Peel checks himself out in a changing room mirror after a rigorous gym session. He ends up sadly patting his emerging belly and you realise that, whatever his original intentions for this series, Sam has become his own Rocky Balboa.
Having played the antagonist in 2006’s Kidulthood and then switched gears in the hit 2008 sequel Adulthood to show the difficulties of that character’s life after having been released from prison, Brotherhood ties up a lot of loose ends — but also rediscovers Sam a little further down the line, much like Sylvester Stallone brought back his most iconic character in Rocky Balboa or Creed. Sam the character has nothing like the innate sympathy that the Italian Stallion evokes, but the connecting tissue in all three films is a character study of this once violent and now remorseful young man.
Another decade on from Adulthood, it’s now been 16 years since Sam killed Trife and he’s trying his best to make amends and move on. Though insecure about his wife Kayla (Shanika Warren-Markland) being the breadwinner for him and their two kids, he’s working four jobs for cash in hand and has repaired his relationship with his mum (Adjoa Andoh) and younger brother Royston (Daniel Anthony.)
But, in true Part III style, just when he thinks he’s out, they pull him back in. Royston is injured by a gunman while performing at a club, in an attack that turns out to be linked to Trife’s vengeful uncle Curtis (Cornell John), fresh out of a 10-year spell in prison after the events of the last film. Teaming up with a powerful sex trafficking ring, Curtis launches a campaign of terror and violence against Sam’s family, pushing Sam further and further until violence seems inevitable.
A lot has changed in the last decade, both on the social and cinematic landscapes. For instance, the controversy surrounding the original film coincided with then up-and-coming member of parliament David Cameron’s suggestion that British citizens “Hug A Hoodie.” Cameron has come and gone as prime minister since then, instituting austerity measures that would not have been likely to relieve the pressures on the kids represented in the film. So, it’s probably no accident that there’s a dastardly henchman nicknamed Hugs (Leeshon Alexander) in this one, and you wouldn’t want a cuddle off him any more than you’d want one off Cameron.
But in cinemas, the hood drama sub-genre has been run into the ground by distributors like the now-defunct Revolver, who released Kidulthood and Adulthood and then countless pale imitations of both, like Ill Manors or the misjudged parody Anuvahood. Clarke brings to Brotherhood exactly what was missing from those other films, by making a heartfelt case for understanding of the violent cycle of machismo and crime that puts people into seemingly inescapable situations.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Clarke’s own performance. His screen presence is so expressive and he’s made the transformation of Sam from murderous misogynistic bully to repentant family man look natural, even while it has demonstrably been hard won over course of the three films. However, the Rocky sequel comparison does hold up in more ways than one, as the stakes have become far less grounded and just a wee bit preposterous.
There’s a ceiling for Bond villainy in West London, which isn’t known for its hollowed-out volcano lairs or satellite lasers, but the bad guys in Brotherhood spend 105 minutes headbutting it. Cornell John is as intimidating as ever as the series’ Big Bad, perpetuating his feud with Sam to illogical extremes, but the well-to-do types and the new blood youngsters that surround them are far less believable than anything else. On the plus side, Rosa Coduri (daughter of Clarke’s Doctor Who co-star Camille) is a highlight, even if she somewhat overbalances the film as a blatant counterpoint to the sexist boys (she calls out their bullshit, but why does she even hang around with them?), and Fady Elsayed makes a turn out of getting repeatedly picked on whenever Sam gets hold of him.
As for returning characters, you might expect from the title that Royston would be more integral, but the film keeps him out of the way. We’re also disappointed that Alisa (Red Madrell) has had less and less screen time over the course of the trilogy and suspect that there could have been a more interesting sequel between films that dealt with her life raising Trife’s daughter on her own and coming to forgive Sam as she has by the time this one rolls around. Certainly, Coduri’s character wouldn’t have so many complaints in common with reviewers if they’d mustered a little more interest in the female characters, who are alternately housebound or victimized.
But, after Clarke, the real star of the show is Arnold Oceng as Henry, who graduates from a minor role in Adulthood to act as Sam’s sidekick. Henry represents some much needed grounding. He’s struggling to make ends meet selling jewellery online with the mother of his child and even though a running gag about a supermarket loyalty card wears thin, he holds up the domestic end of things once it all gets violent. His comic timing is brilliant and gets big laughs all the way through, but he brings about a magnificent emotional pay-off when he’s face to face with a younger thug late in the film. For any other actor, that scene might border on self-parody, but Oceng makes it work through sheer conviction.
As distant as it is from the grounding of the original film, which was principally about the consequences of a girl committing suicide because of Sam, Clarke leaves nothing on the table here. There’s a feeling that, because it’s the finale, they ought to say everything they want to say, and even when it’s not strictly relevant, characters freestyle social commentary on subjects ranging from the rich kids who looted London shops during the riots in 2011 to (hilariously) Michael Bay’s tenacity for ruining cartoons. It’s scatter-shot, but the righteous anger behind these films has hardly diminished over time.
Brotherhood is a fitting end to an unlikely trilogy, made with the best intentions. The evolution of Noel Clarke’s craft as a writer, a director and an actor is mapped out across these three films and — although he tries to escalate the stakes in order to reach the heights of the first one — the trilogy as a whole forms a commanding portrait of an under-represented facet of society. Besides, he’s insisted this is the very last time he’ll revisit Sam (“I could be broke, sweeping the streets, and I’m not making any more of these,” he told Complex in March), so no matter how Rocky-ish this gets at times, you shouldn’t expect to see him fighting a war single-handedly in the next one.
Brotherhood is already in U.K. theaters. It will make its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival this week.