Combustible Celluloid

12 (2009)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Angry and Russian

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy 12 on DVD

Nikita Mikhalkov's 12 received a 2007 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film, though it wasn't released to U.S. theaters until March of 2009. Probably the same elements that appealed to the always annoying foreign film committee -- a long running time and a certain "Russianness" -- also scared off potential distributors. It's also a remake of a beloved American classic, Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957) -- written by Reginald Rose -- which may not sit well with some cinephiles. But all that aside, Mikhalkov turns in a surprisingly energetic, kinetic and gripping film, filled with an enviable selection of great character actors; it's easy to become absorbed looking at these twelve magnificent faces.

The basic court case remains the same, as does the racism behind it. This time the killer is a Chechen boy accused of killing his adopted father. There's strong evidence against him, credible witnesses and very little to refute the story. It's an open-and-shut case. In the new film, the twelve jurors are led to a nearby school gymnasium, since the regular jury room is under renovation. They're confident that they'll be going home shortly. But one man votes "not guilty." In the original, that one man is played by Henry Fonda, and he's the hero of the piece, but this time everyone gets equal weight. (As in the original, Mikhalkov never gives his characters actual names.) Over the next two-hours-plus, their conversation begins to raise doubts in more and more jurors, changing the tide from an almost-certain "guilty" to an almost-complete "not guilty."

Each juror winds up telling a story of his own life, sometimes tragic, sometimes hopeful, that leads to open-minded empathy. Each actor is the equal of his fellows, and each character is magnificently played, like a 12-piece orchestra and each character perfectly balances the others. Perhaps too perfectly, as the rich, poor, mixed culture, educated, working class, eloquent and angry jurors magically balance one another. And Mikhalkov follows by pitching his film at the frenzied level of a theater piece. Yet the director uses the space magnificently, his camera freely whirling and diving through the room, picking up bits of background chatter as well as the focused foreground. He throws in several quirky little gimmicks, such as a trapped bird twittering through the room, or a piano strapped and nailed to the wall (characters much reach through bars to play it), or ancient, hideous, heating ducts spewing and rattling on the ceiling above. At one point, the fuse blows and the bailiff sets up a quick, temporary replacement: disco balls (left over from a school dance in the gym).

It all gets to be a bit much with all the war-torn flashbacks to the accused killer's story, and a few other precious touches, such as a mystical force that emanates from a trophy case, visible only to one thoughtful juror. Mikhalkov has ramped up his film with considerable energy and plenty of ideas, but doesn't always know when to hold back or call it quits. However, the jury portion emerges victoriously as the film's driving force, and you may find that you've bonded with some of these types as they slowly turn into flesh-and-blood characters. Certainly 12 is a good deal more exciting than any 160-minute Russian film sounds like it ought to be.

DVD Details: The 2009 Sony Pictures Classics DVD comes with about a dozen trailers for this film and other art house releases. The image quality is fine, but I expect the big screen or Blu-Ray would make watching these fascinating faces all that much better.

With: Sergey Makovetsky, Sergey Garmash, Aleksey Petrenko, Yury Stoyanov, Sergei Gazarov, Nikita Makhalkov, Mikhail Efremov, Valentin Gaft, Aleksey Gorbunov, Argey Artsybashev, Victor Verzhbitsky, Roman Madianov, Aleksander Adabashian, Apti Magamayev
Written by: Nikita Mikhalkov, Aleksandr Novototsky-Vlasov, Vladimir Moiseyenko, based on a screenplay by Reginald Rose
Directed by: Nikita Mikhalkov
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violent images, disturbing content, thematic material, brief sexual and drug references, and smoking
Language: Russian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 160 minutes
Date: July 16, 2009

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