A Russian remake of an American classic tests viewers' stamina.
Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov
Opens Fri., April 10
“I have a train in an hour,” remarks one juror at the outset of 12, Nikita Mikhalkov’s Russian appropriation of Reginald Rose’s classic teleplay 12 Angry Men. Those familiar with the source can chuckle, knowing the poor guy will be stuck in fevered deliberation for well over an hour. But the joke’s also on you, viewer: Sidney Lumet, in his beloved 1957 film version, banged this out in 96 minutes; Mikhalkov almost doubles that. Where Lumet favored increasingly dark lighting to emphasize the characters’ claustrophobia, Mikhalkov figures a butt-wounding length will replicate the jurors’ psychological pain.
Relocating to Moscow and turning the accused ghetto kid into a Chechen youth, 12 traps a dozen Russians of various nationalities and backgrounds not in a jury room, which is under construction, but in an adjacent school gymnasium. The jurors eventually get down to brass tacks of fighting and bickering once one of them (Yuri Stoyanov) expresses skepticism at the widespread guilty verdict.
To his credit, Mikhalkov, who won an Oscar for Burnt By the Sun in 1996, effectively reconfigures the play for his homeland. More than just an update (unlike the William Friedkin HBO version from 1997), this 12 is explicitly a survey of Russian life today, and specifically how his countrymen have adjusted to a 10-year war with their neighbor. At its most simplistic it becomes a battle between Stoyanov and a bigot cabbie (Sergey Garmash), who begins intimidating with Joey Vento-esque ravings.
Mikhalkov feverishly tries to hold our attention throughout the 159 minutes, sometimes a bit too eagerly; at times his film is almost as hyperkinetic and overheated as those by fellow countryman Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted). Yet even copious circling shots can’t keep it from feeling stagebound and weighed down by the fact that every single angry man now gets at least one endless monologue that stops just short of a detailed autobiography.
More troubling is an alteration in the film’s new finale. Mikhalkov is an outspoken nationalist and Putin supporter, and while he makes sure to demonize anti-immigration types, his ending comes very close to saying that not all Chechens are bad, but most of them are. As a summation of modern Russia, it’s misanthropic, suggesting his countrymen are too weak to stand up for what’s right.