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12 Review

March 11, 2009 | Posted by Chad Webb
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12 Review  

Sergei Makovetsky: 1st Juror
Nikita Mikhalkov: 2nd Juror
Sergei Garmash: 3rd Juror
Valentin Gaft: 4th Juror
Alexei Petrenko: 5th Juror
Yuri Stoyanov: 6th Juror
Sergei Gazarov: 7th Juror
Mikhail Efremov: 8th Juror
Alexei Gorbunov: 9th Juror
Sergei Artsybashev: 10th Juror
Viktor Verzhbitsky: 11th Juror
Roman Madyanov: 12th Juror
Alexander Adabashyan: Bailiff
Apti Magamayev: Chechen boy
Directed By: Nikita Mikhalkov
Written By: Nikita Mikhalkov/Valdimir Moiseyenko/Aleksandr Novototsky
Release Date: March 4, 2009
Running Time: 159 minutes

Rated PG-13 for violent images, disturbing content, thematic material, brief sexual and drug references, and smoking.

Remaking a cinematic classic is a daunting task for any caliber of filmmaker, no matter how gifted. Many have attempted to climb that mountain and failed. Just ask Gus Van Sant, whose shot-for-shot method in the 1998 version of Psycho bombed. That high possibility of disaster is what faced Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov as he tackled 12 Angry Men. The best remakes are those which do not simply copy the original, but those which honor it, and expand upon it with that director’s own unique vision. Mikhalkov has accomplished a near insurmountable feat by coming as close to equaling Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece as anyone could hope for.

What made Mikhlakov’s effort a tad less taxing was the fact that this is not the first time Reginald Rose’s play, nor Sidney Lumet’s film, was remade. In 1997, Exorcist director William Friedkin assembled an all-star cast, and gave it his best shot. The result was an honest, commendable, but ultimately inferior offering that too closely resembled the 1957 original to be set apart from it. And of course multiple stage versions have come and gone, including 12 Angry People, which incorporated females as well as males. While many of these are respectable, they missed the point when going to that same well again, and that is to mold the story into a shape we do not immediately recognize, or view as mimicing.

The basic plot is one that many are familiar with: 12 jury members gather in a room and decide whether or not the defendant is guilty. 12 recycles that basic skeleton, but changes a few odds and ends. It is set in contemporary Moscow, and involves a young Chechen boy, who is accused of murdering his adopted father, a Russian Army officer. Because the courthouse is undergoing heavy remodeling, the jurors are forced to converge in a high school gymnasium, which is next door. What seems like an open and shut case is nowhere near as effortless to wrap up. One by one, the jurors unburden their souls, and tell stories regarding their pasts, as they all weigh the evidence on whether or not the boy deserves a prison sentence. Interspersed with that, are flashbacks of the boy’s journey.

What instantly stands out from the pack of retreads in 12 is the setting. Contemporary Moscow is intriguing enough, but for once, a filmmaker has placed these jurors in a different room. The claustrophobic atmosphere Lumet instilled onto the audience with such skilled camera work was groundbreaking, and Mikhalkov pays homage to that, but veers off in uncharted terrirtory. The gymnasium is the opposite of a tight space. It is wide open, has a snack bar, and all the props an ordinary gym would contain. So instead of the heat and confined space to fuel tempers, one must deal with the distractions of this gym. The jurors make use of this area to great effect by using the various gymnastic equipment and mats to stage demonstrations. At the same time, a bird has flown in, and does his best to let the group know he is there.

One facet of Mikhalkov’s version supersedes Lumet’s, and that is the inimitability of the jurors. True, these Russian names can be difficult to pronounce if you are not from that country, but I can assure you that when the closing credits for 12 roll, you could recall the backstory of each juror if you were shown their face. In Lumet’s, one leaves with memories of Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb, and for good reason, but unless you have watched it countless times, remembering details of the others is fuzzy. This is not the case with 12. Each distinct member of this jury unleashes a story or a monologue that will knock your socks off. Some are shocking, some are heartbreaking, and others are humorous, but all are unforgettable.

In that vein, not one performance eclipses the others. They are all sensational, and deserve praise. Sergei Gamash, who portrays Juror #3, begged Director Nikita Mikhalkob to be in the picture. The road these jurors take is not an exact replica of the previous editions. As the day grows longer, he is awakened by accidental hits of the buzzer, and numerous cell phones ringing. Some jurors change decisions more than once, and it does not come down to the same juror as it usually does. The result will floor you, and although Russian judicial policies are slightly different that what is expressed here, the conclusion makes sense for this society. The bailiff is also someone that presents some lasting scenes. In the beginning he asks for everyone’s cell phones, and says that if they need his assistance, he has given them a buzzer, which is quite loud and obnoxious.

Brave is certainly a word that describes 12 appropriately. Lumet’s film was 96 minutes. Friedkin’s clocked in at 117 minutes. Mikhalkov’s picture ends at approximately 2 and a half hours. That is a lengthy stretch of time with a bunch of angry men, but Mikhlakov understands this, and makes it a goal to maintain the viewers’ attention for the entire duration. One of the tactics he utilizes is the unpredictable lighting system of the gym, which suffers from faulty wiring, so they go on and off frequently, forcing them to take other measures for light. The snappy editing of 12, combined with the stunning cinematography from Vladislav Opelyants is spectacular, and keeps the energy crackling. Likewise, Eduard Artemyev’s score is poignant and absolutely perfect for the mood.

The other way 12 shakes the substance up is through flashbacks, which center on the young Chechen defendant, who is busy pacing around his cell. Starting at his childhood, moving to his teenage life, and including the first meeting with his “father”, following his history is engrossing. Mikhalkov integrates recurring images, and some of the most glorious action sequences of the year. This was the biggest gamble for the director. By pausing the interaction with the jury, and displaying an alternate storyline, it allows a social commentary for Russia, and raises the most eyebrows from those who prefer the proceedings to remain with the 12 men. Taking this chance was what I respected most. We have already seen the result of staying in the jury room. Why recycle it again? Mikhalkov takes it a step further by focusing more on the accused, and having that form our opinion as well.

12 stares in the face of the danger that accompanies the remaking of a masterpiece, but does so in a manner that captures the spirit of the original play/film, yet revises the material to suit Director Nikita Mikhalkov’s own vision. 12 would almost certainly be a top film of 2009 candidate, but it was submitted for best Academy Award foreign language film in 2007, for the 2008 ceremony, and ended up being one of the five nominees. However, it has not seen the light of day in America until now, which makes it just a superlative piece of work that one can say they saw in 2009. 12 was important enough that Former Russian President Vladimir Putin together with the film crew, Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov and Ingushetia’s President Murat Zyazikov all watched the film, and t isupposedly brought a tear to the eye of Putin. The point is, 12 an unnerving, absorbing, and provocative marvel.

The 41112 is not an easy movie to see in the theater. It was playing in a total of 1 theater in New York City, but it was worth the trek, and the money. If you can catch it on the big screen, I heartily recommend it, but if not, mark it on a list and wait for DVD. 12 was better than I ever could have hoped for. I have always loved Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, and it is definitely unparalleled, but Director Nikita Mikhalkov comes as close to matching that classic as anyone could. It is because he does not try to imitate that work, or simply copy the play, but to instill his own ingredients to the mixture, and the result is a triumph.
411 Elite Award
Final Score:  9.5   [  Amazing ]  legend

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Chad Webb

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