By Roger Moore, The Orlando Sentinel
A dozen Russians gather in a high school gym to consider the fate of a young Chechen man accused of murdering his Russian stepfather.
They don’t know each other’s names, nor do we. But we recognize the ”types.” There’s the surgeon, the builder, the actor, the cemetery manager, the TV writer, the artist and the cab driver. We soon learn their prejudices, especially when it comes to Chechen ”terrorists.” They’re a dozen angry men, and the angriest of all is that cabby.
Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12 is a Russian take on Reginald Rose’s story and script for 12 Angry Men, which became the classic Sidney Lumet courtroom drama. Swap the simmering heat of that 1957 film with the snowy Russian winter, change the object of prejudice to Chechen and the language of the arguments to Russian (with English subtitles) and it’s the same movie, updated and retro-fitted for a nation that hasn’t quite got the hang of democracy and its “equal justice under the law.”
Using long monologues — some of them flashbacks — Mikhalkov (the Oscar winning Burnt by the Sun was his) shows his all-male jury debate day and night over the fate of a man we also meet in those flashbacks and in his cell, dancing to remember his past and to stop thinking about his fate, hanging in the balance. We watch as the jury parses the testimony, rethinks the evidence and see juror after juror change his mind, out loud, sometimes, more than once.
”Beyond a reasonable doubt,” one man mutters, repeating a phrase he’s heard in Hollywood movies, films about American justice.
Some men have planes or trains to catch. Others have their own agenda: anti-Semitism sneaks in, with liberal intellectual guilt squaring off with working-class bigotry.
“That stinking Chechen dog is guilty!”
And every so often, they vote. One man deems it unseemly to condemn the kid to life in prison in just a couple of minutes. Another is persuaded, and so on, back and forth.
Mikhalkov (who also plays a juror) has staged a grand piece of theater in a grandly theatrical setting — a gym where the Russian snows occasionally blow in, the lights go on and off and a bird flies in as a tiny metaphor. The angry men argue and tell pieces of their personal history, which relate to the case they’re deliberating over. They sit and stand, rage and persuade, threaten and cajole, within a room that’s not so large that the claustrophobia of the original 12 Angry Men is lost.
If there’s a fault with this Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, it is its own excessive length, leaving room not only for theatrics and the chance for each actor to have the spotlight but for repetition and tedium. Subtitled films built on long memory monologues are a chore for anybody who doesn’t speak the native language of the actors.
But it’s still fascinating, a stylish movie commentary on Russian justice and the universality of prejudice, and a testimony to Rose and Lumet’s long-ago discovery of that perfect crucible for examining human behavior — the jury room.
Cast: Aleksei Petrenko, Yuriy Stoyanov, Valentin Gaft, Sergei Makovetsky, Sergey Garmash, Sergei Gazarov, Nikita Mikhalkov.
Director: Nikita Mikhalkov.
A Sony Pictures Release. Running time: 158 minutes. Violent images, disturbing content, thematic material, brief sexual and drug references, and smoking.