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A scene from 12 (Photo: Milena Botova/Sony Pictures Classics)

12
Directed by
Nikita Mikhalkov
Produced by
Leonid Vereschagin & Mikhalkov
Written by Mikhalkov, Alexander Novototsky-Vlasov & Vladimir Moiseenko, based on the teleplay 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Russian & Chechen, with English subtitles
Russia. 159 min. Rated PG-13
With
Sergey Makovetsky, Nikita Mikhalkov, Sergey Garmash, Valentin Gaft, Alexey Petrenko, Yuri Stoyanov, Sergey Gazarov, Mikhail Efremov, Alexander Adabashian & Apti Magamaev
 

Twelve Russian men are locked in a small gymnasium and asked to come to a unanimous verdict on a Chechen teen charged with first-degree murder. The kidís poor, he barely speaks Russian, and his people are thuggish anyway. Itís a no-brainer. Eleven hands go up for guilty. The sooner these jurors come to a consensus, the sooner they can get back to their daily lives, free of any responsibility for the life of a poor kid from Chechnya. It is indeed a country, implies co-writer and director Nikita Mikhalkov, that many Russians regard as a third-world nuisance, its major export a flood of dark-skinned job seekers on the streets of Moscow, and its own streets a shooting range for the Russian Federation military.

Luckily, there is one dissenting vote, and so begins over two hours of heady deliberation in Mikhalkovís homage to (but not remake of) Sidney Lumetís monumental debut film, Twelve Angry Men (1957). 12ís credits are clear to point out that this version is based on the original 1954 teleplay written by Reginald Rose, and the two films are indeed very different.

For one, Mikhalkovís men are just not that angry. Similar to Lumetís original, each of the 12 jurors is allowed a moment in the spotlight, and each has a personal story to tell. One juror describes his low point as an alcoholic and subsequent rehabilitation. Another, an actor by trade, laments playing the buffoon all his life. Aside from mere anger then, each man has a unique internal conflict. But Mikhalkov, who also plays the role of the jury foreman, attempts in vain to seamlessly work these vignettes into the plot, and eventually the grocery list of personality types feels like an artifice. They are indeed types, and the audience begins to feel that perhaps we could do without 12 consecutive psych 101 lessons.

Yet this device works very well in quite a different way. Each man is the symbol of a popular viewpoint, and 12 eventually resembles a philosophical discourse more than a psychodrama. If this sounds boring (combined with a running time of 159 minutes, to boot), itís surprisingly not at all. Itís a discourse with moving parts. Just as the jurors thrillingly re-create the brutal crime using a soccer goal, a medicine ball, and a random assortment of available gym equipment, Mikhalkovís anxious jurors are likewise in constant motion.

Interspersed is a flashback sequence, presumably set during one of the Chechen wars, where mortars unremittingly blast the hell out of Chechen separatists and a young boy witnesses quite a different murderóthat of his birth parents. He is rescued by a Russian officer and brought away to Moscow, to become one in a sea of disenfranchised refugees. It is the eventual murder of this Russian officer for which the boy will stand trial.

12ís conclusion is not only a physical experience for the audience, having just sat through over two hours of discussion, but it raises serious moral questions, although with a fuzzy, unsatisfying denouement. There is no clear hero in 12, though Mikhalkov attempts to somehow create one out of the dissenting juror. There is also no satisfying answer to the moral questions he raisesóis it enough to decide whether this poor boy is innocent or guilty, or, knowing his unfortunate story (and countless others like his), are we obligated to work toward a positive change in society? These include some of the most important moral issues of our time, and not surprisingly, 12 leaves them for the audience to deliberate. Michael Lee
March 4, 2009

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