The idea is a solid one: Use the rubric of “12 Angry Men” to take a look at disparate swaths of Russian society as it now exists, almost two decades after the fall of communism. In execution, however, “12” comes across as long-winded and repetitive, a 100-minute idea stretched into an untenably epic 159-minute vehicle.
It’s a shame, because there’s so much to like in Nikita Mikhalkov’s movie, which was nominated for a best-foreign-language Oscar in 2008. A young Chechen is accused of murdering his stepfather, an officer in the Russian army. The charge is an incendiary one, likely to provoke strong feelings in the citizens of a country that has fought an on-again off-again conflict with the breakaway republic since 1991.
As in Sidney Lumet’s classic, the majority of the jury thinks it has a clear-cut case on its hands: This dirty Chechen is obviously guilty. After the initial vote, however, it becomes obvious that there’s a holdout. The unanimous verdict required cannot be met because of a troublemaker who refuses to face facts and convict the young man.
Here’s where things go awry. As each member of the jury begins to change his mind, the audience is subjected to a lengthy soliloquy that explains exactly where the man (and all 12 are men) came from, how his life experiences have shaped his thinking and why that means he thinks the young man being tried is guilty or innocent.
(Note: Very little in the way of evidence is discussed during the nearly two hours and 40 minutes of screen time. One shudders at the thought of getting swept into the Russian justice system if this movie is at all representative of it in any way whatsoever. Every character in “12” decides on the accused’s guilt or innocence based on his own personal traumas.)
These long speeches are alternately intriguing and infuriating; they provide a deeper insight into the daily life of your average Russian than you’re likely to find anywhere else, but even so, you just want them to end after a while. For example, it’s fascinating that we’re given a keener look into the subtle role organized crime plays in Russian hamlets. But after hearing similar quality-of-life discussions from a cab driver, a variety show performer and a television executive, it’s kind of tiresome.
Those willing to stick around until the end will find the conclusion worth it. There’s a twist that raises an intriguing, unanswered ethical question: What level of responsibility is required of a person who saves another’s life?
It’s getting to that point that is a struggle.
RATING: PG-13 (Violent images, disturbing content, thematic material, brief sexual and drug references, and smoking)
CREDITS: Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Written by Mr. Mikhalkov, Vladimir Moiseyenko and Aleksandr Novototsky.
RUNNING TIME: 159 minutes
WEB SITE: http://ww.sonyclassics.com/12/
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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