Prominent Russian helmer Alexei Balabanov’s first outright comedy, “Dead Man’s Bluff” revisits the criminal underworld explored in his local hits “Brother” and “Brother 2,” but with mixed results. Pic follows a pair of hoodlum sibs (Alexei Panin and Dmitry Dyuzhev) on a mission to recover a case full of smack from rivals before their boss (helmer-producer Nikita Mikhalkov) has their hides. Violent action, name cast and would-be cool dialogue should ensure strong returns at home, but international auds, who will have seen better and won’t groove to pic’s unembarrassed racism, won’t fall for “Bluff.”
After a brief contempo-set prologue, pic starts in the mid-’90s in an unnamed provincial city (end credits list Nizhni-Novogorod as the location used). A bloody gangland hit conducted in a morgue already crowded with dead bodies turns out to be the work of bent cop Stepan (Victor Sukhorukov).
Meanwhile, local kingpin Sergei Mikhailovich (Nikita Mikhalkov) dispatches Sergei (Alexei Panin) and his brother Simon (Dmitry Dyuzhev), the brains and brawn respectively, to exchange a briefcase of money for heroin at the offices of a lawyer. But Stepan has already hired a trio of other gangsters — Koron (Sergei Makovetsky, sporting a haircut seemingly inspired by Moe of the Three Stooges), thuggish Bala (Anatoly Zhuravlyov), and black Russian Baklazhan (Grigory Siyatvinda) — to intercept the goods.
The inept trio hijacks the heroin instead of the money they were supposed to snatch. Step by step, Sergei and Simon track down Stepan and then the gang, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.
Graphic violence coupled with digressive plot and dialogue creates the impression Balabanov has been watching a lot of Quentin Tarantino lately. Screenplay by Stas Mokhnachev and Balabanov features desultory, cool backchat between the various characters. At one point, Simon and Sergei even debate the virtues of imported McDonald’s meals vs. native Russian blinis, a wink to the famous “Burger Royale” debate in “Pulp Fiction.”
Difference is, Tarantino’s films are funny, and this isn’t all that much, even for native Russian speakers. Pic’s line in mild racist humor at the expense of Baklazhan (whose name means “eggplant” in Russian) grows increasingly tedious. Pic’s satirical thrust is unsubtly rammed home with a contempo coda.
On the plus side, perfs are uniformly ace, led well by Panin and Dyuzhev. Director-producer Nikita Mikhalkov hams it up juicily, his Sergei Mikhailovich a giddy mixture of bonhomie and bloodthirstiness. Balabanov regulars Makovetsky and Sukhorukov display more comic knack than their helmer, while an impressive lineup of Russian talent fills out the minor roles.
Tech credits are pro, with sharply recorded sound by Mikhail Nikolaev and elegant lensing by Evgeny Privin, suggesting an above-average budget for a Russian pic. For the record, title in Russian is the name of the game known as “Blind Man’s Bluff,” which pic has also been called in English.