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Mark Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen in The Brothers Grimsby.

Daniel Smith

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
The Brothers Grimsby
Written by
Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston and Peter Baynham
Directed by
Louis Leterrier
Starring
Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson
Classification
18A
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2016

If comedy equals tragedy plus time, as Steve Allen once put it, then The Brothers Grimsby equals tragedy plus time plus elephant sex plus the most bizarre direction this side of Tommy Wiseau. The new film from Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedy that ties itself into a paradox of sorts: It wants very badly to tell you a great joke, but it also just as desperately wants to prove itself as an action blockbuster worthy of a franchise. It's an impossible film to solve – the only way to make it work is to take it apart and put it back together, hoping a rearrangement of its elements will result in a eureka moment.

It's best to start with where The Brothers Grimsby succeeds. As usual, star and co-writer Cohen spits a strong dose of satirical venom here, offering up a quasi-hero named Nobby, a constantly drunk father of nine who lives for football, plus-sized women and, well, more football. His northern English town is a trash heap, his home a patched-together shack full of soiled furniture and his brood a mess of nicotine-addicted toddlers with names like Skeletor and Django Unchained. But this life of state-sponsored leisure changes radically when he reunites with his long-lost brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong), now a spy with an upper-class bent and a price on his head who is left with no choice but to team up with a sibling he finds repulsive.

But Nobby is not a joke at the expense of Britain's so-called chav culture, as many critics and commentators have mistaken him for; instead, he's a manifestation of the British elite's worst nightmares, a welfare-sucking boogeyman who's dragging the country down the drain – and must therefore be eliminated. He's not intended to be a parody of the poor, but rather a proxy to take down those who are bent on widening such societal divisions in the first place. Just as the Kazakh caricature Borat was a means to eviscerate America's racists and the flamboyant Bruno a lightning rod to expose the world's homophobes, Nobby is a righteous, booze-soaked fist straight to the groin of the British establishment.

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Yet Cohen's typically strong satire is often overwhelmed here by the film's futile desire to be a spy thriller on par with the 007 series. Every time Cohen is on the verge of delivering another pointed jab, the film distracts itself and descends into sloppy action tropes. The blame mostly rests with director Louis Leterrier, best known for the not-bad The Incredible Hulk, the so-so Transporter and the no-way-around-it-awful Clash of the Titans.

The French director comes straight from the Luc Besson school of excessive European shoot-em-ups, filming every scene as if someone once dared him to never hold a shot for longer than three seconds and editing at such a whiplash-inducing pace as to lose all sense of a scene's spatial logic. As a result, the action is incomprehensible, crucial comedic beats are lost, and the audience's attention is divided, if not lost altogether.

It's not exactly as if Cohen is in the clear here, though. He agreed to work with Leterrier instead of, say, director Larry Charles, his partner in crime on Borat, Bruno and The Dictator. Nobby and the dangerous comedy the character represents are jokes that need to be handled with care and skill, not thrown against the wall in maddening Leterrier fashion. If Cohen was so hell-bent on wading into blockbuster territory, a director like Matthew Vaughn would've been a better choice – with Kingsman: The Secret Service, he proved he could expertly balance explosive set pieces with subtle jabs at elitism. (Surely his work hasn't gone unnoticed by Cohen's team – both Grimsby and Kingsman share the same third-act twist.)

When the film's pace slows down every now and then, and Cohen gets room to breathe, the film is a genuine riot. Yes, there's a decent amount of gross-out humour on display (the aforementioned elephant sex, for example), but it's all in service of a larger comedic agenda. And no one knows how to better inflame societal tensions than the man responsible for Ali G.

Next time, though, Cohen should toss aside the gun fights and explosions and high-tech espionage gadgets and stick with the sharpest weapon he has: his own absurd, brilliant and demented comic mind.

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