This Russian drama reminded Judge Bryan Byun of films like The Godfather and Goodfellas—in fact, it made him wish he were watching one of them instead.
An epic tale of a visionary and a scoundrel.
It's hard to imagine that a film about the rise and fall of the Russian "Oligarkh" robber barons in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse could be anything but riveting, fascinating entertainment. Director Pavel Lounguine (Taxi Blues) has managed just that, however, with Tycoon, a leaden and disjointed portrait of the rise and fall of a corrupt businessman based loosely on the life of billionaire Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia's most notorious oligarchs. Berezovsky reportedly helped finance the film, which may explain its rather romantic, uncritical portrayal of the central character.
Tycoon follows the career of Plato Makovski, an opportunistic mathematics student who takes advantage of the fall of Communist Russia to become fabulously wealthy as a crooked businessman. The film's Citizen Kane–inspired narrative structure opens in the immediate aftermath of Plato's assassination and follows a Russian prosecutor, Chmakov, as he interviews Plato's friends and associates in order to piece together the story of the man's life and uncover the identity of his killer.
Most of Tycoon follows such a familiar and predictable story arc that it's hard to believe the film is based on real events. If you've seen Scarface, the Godfather films, Goodfellas, or Once Upon a Time in America, very little about this tale of Plato and his partners in crime, Larry and Viktor, and their humble origins, meteoric rise, and inevitable decline will come as any surprise. (One notable exception: an ambush plot involving a tiny kitten makes for a jarring, surreal moment—one that promptly segues into a dull retread of Sonny Corleone's killing in The Godfather.) There isn't a scene in the film where you can't feel Lounguine straining to emulate the great epic crime dramas—there's even a Godfather-style "never take sides against the family" scene between Plato and Viktor (the Fredo of this picture)—but Tycoon has none of those classic films' masterful storytelling or memorable performances. It's slow, talky, and edited in a disjointed, jump-cut-happy style that drains the film of any narrative cohesion.
Part of what makes films like Goodfellas and the Godfather saga such compelling viewing is their lovingly detailed forays into the criminal organizations they document. One of the most memorable scenes in Scorsese's Casino is a step-by-step illustration of the inner workings of a Vegas casino and its Mafia overlords. We get no such glimpse into the shady world of Russian commerce; we see the players in action but with little background to give their actions context or consequence. We're told that plots and schemes occurred, but we rarely see them actually playing out. The result is a lot of talking and arguing and not much drama or action, like Once Upon a Time in America with all the interesting scenes removed.
Tycoon is clearly not a high-budget film, and the low-fi production values are faithfully preserved on DVD with a grainy, desaturated print that appears free of obvious defects but is still only a couple of steps above VHS quality. Audio isn't much better; the disc offers a stereo track with the original Russian dialogue (English subtitles are available), and the sound is dull but listenable. The main bonus feature is an interminable interview with Lounguine, who has some interesting things to say about post-Soviet Russia but is saddled with a droning, soporific speaking voice. American and foreign trailers are also included.
Given the film's timely and sensational subject matter, I was surprised by how bored I was by Tycoon. What should have been Russia's answer to Goodfellas is instead a flat, unfocused patchwork of crime epic clichés that assumes far too much familiarity with its subject and offers too little in the way of historical context to lend much weight to its chaotic jumble of scenes. Those looking for a revealing exploration of this fascinating era of Russian history would be better served by a documentary than this plodding, opaque film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Interview with Director Pavel Lounguine
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