There’s a long, rich tradition, dating back to the classic Warner Bros. titles from the ’30s and ’40s, of gangster movies involving two brothers—one good, one “bad.” Scare quotes are necessary because often the bad brother, who’s terrific in every way apart from being a criminal, spends most of his time trying to protect the good brother. He may even be thuggin’ it up entirely for the kid’s benefit (the good brother is always the younger of the two), stealing money that’ll either pay for his college education or set him up in a legitimate business. My Brother The Devil dusts off this template and gives it an aggressively modern spin, both in terms of the milieu—it’s set in present-day London, featuring a family of Egyptian descent—and with regard to a specific plot twist that old Hollywood could only address via the vaguest of hints.
That element doesn’t surface until the midpoint, however. Initially, we’re introduced to James Floyd, an amiable dope runner—early on, he’s seen sneaking into his mother’s purse, not to take cash but to add some without her knowledge—and his more studious brother Fady Elsayed, who suffers from a bad case of hero worship when it comes to his older sibling. When a clash with a rival gang results in the death of his best friend, Floyd decides it’s time to get out of the life, just as Elsayed decides it’s time to get in. Complicating matters considerably is the new friendship developing between Floyd and a French-born Muslim photographer (the great Saïd Taghmaoui, from La Haine and Three Kings), whose influence on Floyd distresses Elsayed to the point where he winds up spying on the two of them.
What Elsayed discovers, which probably isn’t terribly difficult to guess, sends My Brother The Devil spinning in an ugly new direction, and one of the film’s strongest assets is the matter-of-fact honesty with which it handles this subject, eschewing the emotional speeches that most writers can’t resist. (Floyd, handsome and magnetic, has the makings of a major star; his reaction in the scene where his brother finally confronts him is a model of silent restraint, more moving than any histrionics could be.) Director Sally El Hosaini, however, who also wrote the screenplay, proves better at introducing dilemmas for her characters than at resolving them. Incidents simply follow one another rather than develop, and the climax relies on a minor act of violence that wouldn’t likely terminate much of anything in real life. All the same, it’s refreshing to see a new generation reinterpret the classics. James Cagney would be proud.