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MOVIE REVIEW

'12'

Sidney Lumet's classic about jurors is set in modern-day Russia by director Nikita Mikhalkov.

March 06, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

If you consider the Russian literary tradition, with its penchant for turning existentialism into a five-course meal, it's hard to think of many American films that would be a more appetizing choice for adaptation by Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov than "12 Angry Men," the 1957 drama that locked a jury in a room for a day to debate the fate of an alleged killer.

In "12," which Mikhalkov says is loosely based on the original Sidney Lumet film, (though I would argue cleaves more closely than he might imagine), the hours inside a makeshift jury room in modern-day Moscow are not wasted as far more than the murder in question is on the table. Race, class, justice, war, free will, greed, government decay and conspiracy are on the menu.

Where Lumet's film is lean and taut, the small jury room and a hot day ratcheting up emotions, Mikhalkov has opened up and expanded his into a more than 2 1/2 -hour saga. The trial is set in winter, with the back story of the Chechen boy accused of murdering his Russian stepfather intercut throughout.

Though he goes back to the teenager a few times too many, you are glad he escapes the confines of the jury room on occasion to tell this story. For it is there, in the open fields and small villages of Chechnya, that you are reminded of Mikhalkov's intimate feel for the landscape of his country and the joy and pain of its peoples that you find in his other work, including the Oscar-winning "Burnt by the Sun."

We become, in a sense, a silent witness as he takes us through a bucolic summer countryside and into the war-torn Chechen streets, where guilt and innocence linger as heavy in the air as smoke from the firebombs that have gutted the boy's hometown.

There is a subtext to be found in nearly every frame, for example the long walk from the courthouse to the adjacent school and its gym, which will serve as the jury room, exposes the country's deteriorating infrastructure, with leaky pipes, broken floors and half-completed repairs everywhere. Things here are clearly broken.

The first vote is taken -- 11 guilty, 1 innocent -- and so begins an exhaustive analysis of the murder and, more tellingly, the men, a diverse social, political and ethnic bunch. Prejudice is laid bare as they slowly dissect one another as mercilessly as the case in front of them.

The power of the scenes lies in the actors, as 12 players essentially take the stage. Here, a troika of singular performances anchor the film -- Sergei Makovetsky as the businessman who casts the first dissenting vote and is the first to expose his own redemption story; Sergei Gazarov as the Caucasus-born surgeon whose history proves unexpectedly explosive and compelling; and Sergey Garmash as the racist cab driver who battles the others and the many indignities of his life until the end.

Early on in the deliberations, a sparrow flies in through a broken window to escape the cold. As the men argue, we occasionally catch sight of the sparrow, hear the beating of his wings as he searches for a way out. The final vote is taken, the jury begins to disassemble, each going his separate way. Someone notices the sparrow, and opens a window to set him free. A metaphor, no doubt, for an innocent's struggle in a harsh world, because nothing in the director's hands feels random.

There is an unnerving and hopefully implausible twist at the end, but for the most part, Mikhalkov's "12" is magnetic, a 2008 Oscar nominee in the early rounds of the foreign language competition. The men are just as angry as they were in Lumet's day and the debate as passionately raucous as Russian literary tradition would demand.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'12'

MPAA rating: PG-13

for violent images,

disturbing content,

thematic material, brief sexual and drug references, and smoking.

Running time: 2 hours, 33 minutes. Russian with English subtitles.

Playing: Laemmle's Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles,

(310) 477-5581; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; Laemmle's Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811; Edwards West Park 8,

3755 Alton Parkway, Irvine, (949) 622-8609.

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