Expansively, dramatically, magnificently Russian, Nikita Mikhalkov’s loose remake of “12 Angry Men” plays like vintage jazz from a veteran band. Orchestrating his 11 co-actors in virtuoso solos, duets, trios and ensembles, Mikhalkov assures that each jury member commands the stage with pathos and panache. Fully exploiting the Chekhov-derived Russian genius for theatricalizing without waxing stagy, “12” marks a triumphant return for the helmer, who received a special Golden Lion for his overall body of work at Venice. Unfortunately, the rousing pic may lack the stars or hooks to transform its old-fashioned virtues into solid arthouse bait.
Mikhalkov and his scripters have basically retained the plot and many pertinent details of Reginald Rose’s script, which originated as a teleplay, was brought to the bigscreen in 1957 by helmer Sidney Lumet, became a 1997 telefilm directed by William Friedkin and most recently saw life as a Broadway production.
In this new version, the accused is a Chechen youth (Apti Magamayev) who allegedly killed his adoptive Russian father and, furthermore, comes equipped with a bloody war-torn backstory. Racism and prejudice still hold sway, but the question of the murder’s true identity has shifted in the script’s transposition to capitalist Russia.
Filmmakers have also wisely relocated the action to the cavernous gymnasium of a functioning high school that serves as a makeshift jury room, considerably widening the playing field and introducing a world of actor-friendly props. Characters stride across large spaces, play piano and angrily throw exercise balls at one another, radically altering the parameters of the frame. Claustrophobia is no longer an issue.
While Mikhalkov doubtlessly considers his characters’ epiphanies and the ways they reflect upon contemporary Russian society of utmost importance, he is too flamboyant a showman not to dress up these ideas as mesmerizing fables and flesh them out with alluring perfs.
Each character becomes the audience, critic, enabler or co-star of the others’ stories, and all play to the viewer and the portentously silent ringmaster/foreman, Mikhalkov (who not-so-modestly reserves the smallest but most omniscient part for himself).
Thus, the racist Russian cab driver (Sergey Garmash) interrelates with the group’s most vacillating juror (Yuri Stoyanov), a TV producer in a pin-striped suit. Masterfully staging a “what if” scenario to make him change his not guilty vote, the cab driver thrusts the TV producer into a convenient wheelchair and pushes him through an excruciatingly suspenseful re-creation of coming home to his lovely home to discover his wife and daughter slain by the kind of violent killer he is considering unloosing on society.
It is this same cabbie character (an amalgam of the original’s Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley roles) who tells a grotesque story about almost driving his own son to suicide. Many tales spring from left field. An elderly Jewish sprite (Valentin Gaft) tells a Holocaust story. A surgeon from the Caucasus (Sergei Gazarov) suddenly turns into a magnificent knife-twirling dervish after a racist rant about the savagery of Chechens.
The always subtly subversive Sergey Makovetsky, doing his own inimitable spin on the soft-spoken central Henry Fonda part, recounts a saga of drunkenness and redemption that places the jury in the palm of his hand. The final coup de theatre is, unsurprisingly, delivered by Mikhalkov himself.
At 153 minutes, pic races by. Tech credits are superb, Vladislav Opeliants’ lensing and lighting constantly reconfiguring the gym. Whether activated by CGI or a sparrow-wrangler or both, the bird that swoops, hops, perches and poops, or simply symbolizes, is a marvelous addition to the cast.