Having written, helmed and scored his debut feature, “To Live,” the ambitious and accomplished Russian multihyphenate Yuri Bykov adds acting and editing to his skill set with his electric sophomore feature, “The Major.” Tracing how things go from bad to much, much worse when some corrupt cops try to cover up a hit-and-run by one of their own, this crime drama puts a distinctive, cynical Russian spin on genre material. Already sold to several offshore territories and with a rumored Stateside deal in the pipeline, it should substantially build Bykov’s reputation on the international circuit.
Pic opens with a shot of adrenaline on an icy highway, as military police major Sobolev (Denis Shvedov, who starred in “To Live”) races in his SUV to a maternity hospital in the nearby burg of Ryazan (about a three-hour drive southeast from Moscow) where his wife (never seen) is giving birth. Driving recklessly, Sobolev runs over and kills a 7-year-old boy, and then, in a panic, locks the child’s distraught mother, Irina Goutorova (Irina Nizina), in his own car while he phones his colleagues back at the station for help.
Lower-ranking officer Kroshunov (Bykov) and uniformed cop Merkulov (Ilya Isaev) arrive on the scene and get to work, making it look as though Sobolev was less culpable than he was. They even give Irina a slug of brandy and then force her to have a blood test once the ambulance arrives, so they can blame her for being drunk and therefore negligent herself. Their boss, Pankratov (Boris Nevzorov) — either the chief of police, the mayor or just the local gangster kingpin (there’s no real difference in many Russian towns) — orders them to make the problem go away by any means necessary, lest a scandal undermine their power base.
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However, the situation escalates via a string of bad decisions involving excessive use of violence, ineptitude and, most provocatively of all, slivers of humanity, which make certain characters spare the lives of others when it would have been more expedient to kill them. Sobolev, racked with guilt over what he’s done, ends up on the run with Irina after her husband (Dmitry Kulichkov) storms the police station with a rifle and kills another cop (Kirill Polukhin).
Shot mostly on a Red camera by Kirill Klepalov with lots of handheld skittishness, “The Major” has the same percussive drive and hardboiled swagger as men-on-the-run thriller “To Live,” but this time it’s in service of a more sophisticated script. At times, the pic feels like the pilot for a TV procedural but with dingier sets, more swearing and a very Slavic sense of miserabilism. No one here harbors any illusions that the police are there to uphold justice and the law; mostly they’re just thugs in uniform, although there are shades and gradations of thuggery here that mark some as more sympathetic than others, nuances that come out via a fine cast of familiar character thesps.
Bykov may have overstretched himself a bit by playing a key role as well as doing his many other jobs on set, but his physical similarity to Shvedov underscores their characters’ closeness as friends, as well as the fact that Bykov’s Kroshunov could just as easily have been the one in trouble. Plus he’s a pretty good actor, too.