Cinema history is full of follow-ups far inferior to their predecessors, but rarely has it thrown up a sequel quite so contrary to the spirit of the film that spawned it as “Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus.” Even more astonishing, Nikita Mikhalkov helmed both this bloated, tacky war epic and its admittedly rambling but resonant 1994 predecessor. Given that “Exodus,” reputedly the most expensive post-Soviet Russian pic ever made, crashed and burned even in home territory on May release, offshore auds are hardly likely to warm to this much more than their Russian counterparts did.
Winner of both the foreign-language film Oscar and the Cannes jury prize, writer-helmer Mikhalkov’s original “Burnt by the Sun” basked in the afterglow of glasnost and perestroika, boldly addressing the horrors of Stalin’s purges in a way no Soviet-era film ever could. Some knowledge of its characters and outcome is essential to understand “Burnt by the Sun 2.”
In the first film, set in 1936, Mikhalkov himself played the much-decorated, semi-retired, Red Army Col. Kotov, whose idyllic life in the country is destroyed when Arsentyev (Oleg Menshikov, in both films), an old friend of Kotov’s wife, comes to visit. In the sequel, Mikhalkov has essentially done a “Dallas” by revealing straight off that Kotov wasn’t shot at all, contrary to the first film’s closing titles. Instead, he’s first seen here in a prison camp in 1941, on the day Russia and Germany go to war.
When German planes bomb the camp (historically, an absurdity), Kotov survives and eventually joins up with a battalion of prisoner-soldiers (which did exist, but not until 1942). Pic’s biggest and best action scene sees the battalion almost entirely wiped out by German tanks.
Meanwhile, Marusia (Victoria Tolstoganova this time) has also not only survived the purge but also become Arsentyev’s wife, while little Nadya (who should be 13 by now, according to her age in the first movie, but is again played by Nadezhda Mikhalkova, now 23) has been adopted by Arsentyev. Over the course of the film, the unfortunate young Nadya escapes an air raid on a bridge, the sinking of a hospital ship and a village massacre, all so she might be able to reunite with her father in the part two promised at pic’s conclusion. Oh, also, she has to live so that she can grant a dying soldier his last wish: to see a pair of real breasts for the first time.
Screenplay by Mikhalkov, Alexander Novotoski-Vlasov, Vladimir Moisyenko and Gleb Panfilov was roasted in the Russian press for its historical inaccuracies, just some of which are noted above. But auds won’t have to be experts on Soviet history to see this is jingoistic, proselytizing, badly acted twaddle. On a narrative level, the film ineptly switches between Kotov and Nadya’s storylines, with interstitial explication scenes (set in 1943) between Arsentyev and a Soviet counter-intelligence officer (Sergei Makovetsky).
In terms of sheer spectacle, pic fares a little better with its action setpieces, which deploy non-digital casts of hundreds and plenty of big bangs, although even here, things could have been improved with better spatial coherence; visual effects look jarring and cheaply rendered. Edward Artemyev’s score is the bombastic cherry on top.
For the record, pic’s onscreen title at projection caught was “Utomlyonnye solntsem 2” (“Burnt by the Sun 2” in English), not “The Exodus: Burnt by the Sun 2” or “Exodus: Burnt by the Sun 2,” as described by the Cannes catalog and publicity material, respectively. Fest version was a half-hour shorter than the film released in Russia.