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Chasing riches in a new Russia

'Tycoon,' a major work, is a political thriller on an emerging society.

August 08, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Pavel Lounguine's sprawling "Tycoon: A New Russian," which tells of the rise and fall of the richest man in Russia, has been compared to "Citizen Kane" and "The Godfather." It is a vigorous, boldly stylish and ambitious work, freely moving back and forth from 1985 and the era of perestroika to roughly 2000. It bristles with dynamic, sharply defined portrayals and is in every way a major work. Inspired in part by the career of trouble-plagued tycoon Boris Berezovsky, it is as timely as this week's headlines: Yukos Oil chief Mikhail Khodorkhovsky announced Tuesday he is prepared to take on the Kremlin in his fight with Russian prosecutors, declaring it a clash between an emerging civil society and the federal security system with roots in antiquity -- a struggle that is at the heart of this film.

"Tycoon" is also impossible to follow with any consistency. A Russian woman attending a press preview estimated that the English subtitles, while literate and lively, convey only about a third of the meaning of all that's being said and going on. It may be that it's beyond the capacity of subtitles to communicate all the nuances and developments in an intensely dense film.

"Tycoon" is demanding, but its broad outlines, central issues and vivid personalities are clear enough to reward the conscientious viewer with the film's disturbing and inescapable implications for a country at a time when ties between government and big business seem uncomfortably close.

With the advent of perestroika, a charismatic university student, Platon Makovski (Vladimir Mashkov), encourages three of his friends to forsake academia to plunge into private capitalism. They are Viktor (Sergei Oshkevich), a brilliant but naive mathematics genius; Moussa (Alexandre Samoilenko), Platon's burly, none-too-bright childhood pal; and Mark (Mikael Vasserbaum), who has the most trouble with his conscience as the group engages in increasingly shady dealings. Starting with investing in a counterfeit brand of stone-washed jeans, they soon become involved in importing Mercedes cars in large numbers, which brings them in contact with a suave Georgian, Larry (Levani Uchaineshvili), who soon becomes Platon's right-hand man.

Seesawing between past and present, the film becomes a group portrait -- dominated by Platon -- of the four pals as they are transformed by their ever-escalating wheeling and dealing in a climate of corruption.Getting away with just about anything that pops into their heads, they attract the attention and the enmity of the Russian secret service, a successor to the KGB that is intent on curbing the entrepreneurs' power to preserve their own status and aspirations.

There is a nascent triangular situation between Platon and the secret service's authoritarian Gen. Koretski (Alexandre Baluev) and Koretski's beautiful, soon-to-be-ex- wife Maria (Maria Mironova), but Platon is so swept up in his constant maneuverings he hasn't time for love and romance, merely commercial sex. The more threatened Platon becomes, the more daring he becomes as well, taking over a TV station and trying to control a presidential race. "Tycoon" unfolds as a stingingly satirical political thriller driven by an investigator from the Urals, Chmakov (Andrei Krasko), who digs into Platon's affairs with the aura of a dogged, world-weary private eye. Throughout the film there is an implicit anti-Semitism directed toward Platon, which could well serve, perhaps unconsciously, to help him rationalize his escalating unscrupulousness.

Intricately structured, "Tycoon" cascades operatically to its convoluted denouement, its sweep heightened by Leonid Diesyatnikov's richly varied score. Vladimir Mashkov is widely regarded as Russia's top star, and his magnetism and talent are crucial in holding the film together.

In the end "Tycoon" above all evokes a melancholy awareness of the seemingly eternal exploitation and impoverishment of the Russian people.


'Tycoon: A New Russian'

MPAA rating: Unrated.

Times guidelines: Some nudity, language, gangster violence, highly complex adult themes.

Vladimir Mashkov... Platon

Andrei Krasko... Chmakov

Maria Mironova... Maria

Alexandre Baluev...Koretski

Levani Uchaineshvili...Larry

A New Yorker Films release of a CDP, Arte France Cinema, France 2 Cinema, Gimages Films, Network Movie, ZDF/Arte Magnat, Kominter, STV co-production in association with The Studios Etalon Films and with the participation of various other organizations. Director Pavel Lounguine. Producers Catherine Dussart (CDP), Vladimir Grigoriev (Magnat). Screenplay Alexandre Borodianski, Pavel Lounguine and Yuli Dubov; adapted from the novel by Dubov. Cinematographer Alexey Fedorov, Oleg Dobronravov. Editor Sophie Brunet. Music Leonid Diesyatnikov. In Russian with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

Exclusively at the Cecchi Gori Fine Arts, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 652-1330; the Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811; and the Park Place 10, Jamboree Blvd. at Michelson, Irvine, (800) FANDANGO No. 142.

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