It’s a pity that certain epochs tend to get relegated to polite, slightly stuffy “Masterpiece Theater” terrain in screen translation. But if the alternative is something as strained as “The Duelist” — which tries to impose megaplex macho-action spectacle on the upper echelons of 19th-century Czarist Russian society — then sticking to the status quo will do just fine, thanks. This ludicrous costume shoot-’em-up only inflates its whopping clichés and anachronisms by placing them in the incongruously deployed Imax format. Despite the alluring novelty of watching a costume narrative in that supersized mode, Alexey Mizgirev’s film is unlikely to find much welcome beyond former Soviet territories.
We know the handsome, glowering young stranger known as Yakovlev (Petr Fedorov) is the manliest of manly men because his expression never changes — not even (or especially) when a bullet is being dug out of his shoulder. He’s purportedly a retired Imperial Army officer unafraid of the notoriety he’s rapidly earning in St. Petersburg as someone who will fight a duel at the drop of a hat. In fact, he generally does the hat-dropping himself, perhaps for profit, in tandem with an older business associate (Martin Wuttke).
Equally bloodthirsty, though for different reasons, is the nefarious Count Beklemishev (Vladimir Mashkov). It is inevitable that the two men should ultimately face one another with pistols cocked, even though it eventually emerges that both might (knowingly or otherwise) be leaving a trail of corpses that conveniently erases the Count’s heavy debts.
Among those who become mixed up in the intrigue are an idealistic young prince (Pierre Bourrel) and his virtuous sister (Julia Khlynina), as well as a German noblewoman (Franziska Petri) with the hots for coldhearted Beklemishev. Needless to say, mysterious Yakovlev turns out to be hiding a secret identity, and a vengeful agenda, that must be revealed in a formative-shocking-injustice flashback — and yes, there will be flogging involved.
If the plot often seems convoluted, that’s because writer-director Mizgirev (whose prior films appear to have been more serious-minded) only seems interested in the more sensational aspects of his story, much as his characters may babble on about rank and codes of conduct. Gory duels occur so frequently here they almost achieve “Monty Python”-level absurdity (“What? No borscht left? I challenge you, sir!!”) and must endure gimmicky staging variations to keep up viewer interest. Thus, rather than plain old 10-paces-at-dawn stuff, we get such odd variations as duels fought behind obscuring screens, and others that are more like Russian roulette.
It’s hard not to imagine “The Duelist” as Vladimir Putin’s fantasy of Imperial Russia, in which men endlessly talk about honor while staring daggers and aiming firearms at each other, and where there’s nothing at all gay about a hero spending so much time impressively shirtless. Naturally, women both virginally blonde and strumpetly red-headed tremble with yearning at the proximity of such masculine magnificence, resulting in the film’s single most howl-inducing setpiece: When not long after telling our protagonist “I hate you!” Princess Martha naturally finds herself boinking him. What’s more, she does it naked, in a carriage with big exposing windows, in the middle of a busy daytime city street. How did such episodes not manage to find their way into the pages of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy? Perhaps only because the latter lacked inspirational access to “Emmanuelle” movies, not to mention the Michael Bay oeuvre.
While sporadically impressive as spectacle, particularly given its Imax boost, “The Duelist” often plays fast and loose with period accuracy, not just in terms of character behavior but in details of costume and production design. It is unclear whether this is because the filmmakers simply don’t care, or are going for any effect that might appeal to a modern action audience. (For instance, Yakovlev’s customary black-tunic garb makes it look like he just stepped out of “The Matrix.”)
The overall result, complemented by an international cast’s duly humorless performances in one-dimensional roles, a bombastic orchestral score, and other polished-but-ham-handed creative contributions, is hokum of the first order.