Judge Mike Rubino has a long monologue for every occasion!
"The law comes before everything, but what's to be done if the mercy comes before the law?"
Russians are notoriously long-winded, that's no secret. Just trying to carry around Dostoyevsky's greatest hits is asking for a month's worth of physical therapy. So it's no surprise that Nikita Mikhalkov's adaptation of Reginald Rose's 12 Angry Men turns the taught 90-minute masterpiece into a 160-minute epic.
Facts of the Case
A Chechen boy is accused of murdering his Russian stepfather, and his fate rests in the hands of an all-male jury of twelve. Making matters a little more bizarre for this already trying case is the temporary jury room in which the group is sequestered: a middle school gymnasium.
As the jurors discuss the case, flashbacks guide the viewer through the Chechen boy's violent childhood amidst the Russian-Chechnyian wars. Each juror must wrestle with his own preconceptions and prejudices, and ultimately decide whether or not this boy is guilty or innocent.
To call this a "loose" adaptation of the original stage play, or the Sidney Lumet classic, is a little misleading. 12's sequence of events may occur in the same order as the story's other iterations, but the manner in which they're presented is brimming with Russian symbolism and verbosity. It's a well made film that is certainly a product of a county with great pride and literary history, however I didn't find it to be as accessible or successful as the original.
The film begins with a series of disjointed images filled with violence and mystery. We see the Chechen boy riding his bike through a ghost of his mother, soldiers being gunned down in the streets, and a smoldering neighborhood shrouded in smoke. With little exposition or dialogue to start, Mikhalkov sets a symbolic tone for the movie—it's like he's snapping his fingers at us, saying "Pay attention, this all means something." When the actual trial scenes begin, 12 plays out more traditionally. You see the Chechen boy, now a teenager, chained up in a cell in the middle of the court room. The jurors are led from the courtroom into a middle school right next door (the court house is currently under construction), and into a gymnasium which will act as their deliberation room.
As we are introduced to each character, and the voting begins, Mikhalkov stretches his directorial legs a bit. The scenes in the gymnasium are beautifully choreographed and shot; he uses a series of long takes, as the camera glides around the table in the center of the gym, allowing the actors to work through pages of dialogue at a time. The acting is top-notch all around, which makes scenes like this feel as if you're watching a stage play. If there is any complaint in this otherwise beautifully shot film, it's that Mikhalkov seems obsessed with punctuating the jury scenes—and therefore halting any momentum the film builds—with quiet shots of the Chechen boy sitting in a holding cell. Mikhalkov's choice to focus on the accused boy almost as much as the men judging him was interesting, but it didn't feel fully integrated into the story.
Throughout 12, each juror must confront his own personal prejudices in order to come to a final decision on the boy's guilt. These actors pull it off wonderfully, but their extended, often boring, monologues can at times border on the melodramatic. At one point, one of the jurors gives an extended speech about an uncle who gambled away all of his money. When he's finished with the story, the man next to him asks what relevance it had. It didn't really pertain to the issue at hand, but the juror just felt like he had to tell a story. These lengthy speeches come so often throughout the film, and so predictably, that many of them had me asking that same question.
The story of the twelve angry men is so iconic, and so perfectly constructed, that even adding another 60 minutes doesn't lessen its impact. This movie is a product of the modern socio-political makeup of Russia, and for that it's worth watching. The ending of the film may seem a little strange, and the pacing can be a little uneven, but story remains solid.
12 is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and looks sharp and colorful in standard def. The film's high-contrast cinematography and color correction are reproduced with crisp edges and no visible grain, although there were a few scenes that felt oddly underexposed. 12 is a surprisingly loud film with plenty of orchestration and a booming 5.1 surround track. The sound effects didn't seem to mix as well, and many (like the "whooshing" swipes of a very loud dagger) stood out as over produced. Sadly, this Sony Pictures Classics release is essentially bare bones. All you'll get is an option for English and French subtitles and a theatrical trailer.
12 is a well acted, artistically directed, adaptation of a classic American film. Unlike its predecessors, this Russian version feels bloated and melodramatic. However, the basic themes of prejudice and mercy inherent in the plot are still just as powerful.
Guilty. Not guilty? Ah, forget it.
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