Boris Akopov’s feature debut “The Bull” announces in serious text at the outset that it is based on a true story. But the film unfolds along such formulaic lines, from its arc of gritty tragedy to its use of counterpointing pop tracks over vivid scenes of violence, that life, in this scuzzy Russian suburb in 1997, appears to have imitated art — specifically Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” but you can throw in most of the gangster and mafia movies of the late ’70s and ’80s, too. It follows the very brief rise and long, bloody, betrayal-ridden fall of a roving gang of Muscovite malchicks, under the leadership of the handsome, stuttering Anton (Yuri Borisov). Or at least it probably does: The compellingly staged, well-performed action is, for the English-speaking viewer, buried underneath such atrocious subtitling that it is difficult to be sure.
When we meet him, Anton aka “Bull” — a nickname/play on his surname that he got in prison — is ginning up his crew of buzz-cut, bovver-booted hoodlums, many of whom he’s known since childhood, for a clash with a rival gang. Akopov, along with DP Gleb Filatov, shoots excitingly, with a canny eye for the brute choreography of the groin kick and the clothesline-knockout, but the fight is complicated when his little sister Anya (Afina Kondrashova) shows up. Anton fires a gun to disperse the melee, the police arrive, and he is arrested. However Anton’s thug star is in the ascendent: He has caught the attention of a local kingpin, and so he is released after some strings are pulled — strings that are, however, very much attached to a big job the crime lord wants Anton’s crew to handle.
It gets slightly botched, but nevertheless for a short time Bull and his boys are riding high — literally in some cases, with Anton’s unstable best friend getting hooked on drugs, making him even more volatile and manipulable, especially given his attachment to a stolen Polaroid camera with which he insists on documenting the crew’s many misdeeds. It’s maybe not the smartest idea to collect such a convenient cache of evidence of your own criminality, but these guys aren’t exactly chess champions. Soon, with Akopov and Anton Bulle’s pulsating score drumming things along at a fair clip, their ruthless, newly-minted enemies are after them, as well as the police, which brings Anton’s beloved family under threat — his mother, little sister and straitlaced brother Mischa (Egor Kenzhametov), as well as Tania (Stasya Miloslavskaya), the pretty local beautician on whom Mischa is fixated.
The attraction really exists between Anton and Tania. Possibly because a love story requires less untranslatably hardboiled local gangster-speak, but more likely because Borisov and Miloslavskaya have natural chemistry, the film is surprisingly touching in their hesitant romance, that stutters as badly as Anton, yet actually contains the kernel of something true amid so much that feels like cliché. Tania’s worldliness, her pragmatism in dating a wealthy foreigner she does not love but who offers her the possibility of escape may itself be schematic — doomed passion or loveless freedom, how very Dostoevskian! — but it does help ground the “The Bull” in the limbo-like hopelessness of its time and place. At least for the short passages when you’re not actively distracted by the project of working out what the awkward subtitles might be trying to say.
Bad subs put reviewers in a quandary. On the one hand, it’s unfair to a promising first-time filmmaker, who clearly has the reins of genre firmly in hand and some pretty nifty ideas about dynamic shooting and editing (which he did himself), that his otherwise solidly built film should be penalized for something beyond his control. And considering “The Bull” took the top prize at Sochi’s Kinotavr Film Festival, as well as from Karlovy Vary’s impressive East of the West selection, there is a film of some value here.
On the other hand, when it feels as though Akopov’s script, which doubtless bristles with arcane late-’90s Russian slang, has been fed into the free trial version of an online translator then typed up through thick mittens, it would be impossible to claim that utterly incomprehensible garble like “drag all the gouls, you goul” or “It goes tenant” or “I’m going to call to the Easter” have no impact on the film’s effectiveness. This is a shame given that, as an authentically grimy, pre-Putin Russian riff on an internationally popular genre, “The Bull” feels eminently exportable — especially to the English-speaking territories from where its influences mostly hail, and where Akopov’s grungy aesthetic, kinetic pacing and stylized violence should otherwise easily find an appreciative audience.