Remakes are so hit or miss that when someone attempts a remake of a classic film, you have to wonder what the director's thinking. But Nikita Mikhalkov scores a bulls-eye with "12," a film based on Sidney Lumet's Oscar-nominated "12 Angry Men," a 1957 courtroom drama that's distinctive in that it's set mostly inside the juror's room. "12" was Russia's official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2008 Academy Awards, but, like the original film, it fell short of the win.
The original film took place in New York City, where a short scene inside the courtroom established the fact that even the judge thought the verdict was a done deal. But one juror had reasonable doubt about a young man accused of killing his father. At first he was an obstinate target of the group's anger, a thorn in their sides. Personalities clashed and continued to clash throughout the film. But then another juror was swayed to change his vote to "not guilty," and soon the entire group was trying to do what they should have been doing in the first place: deliberating over the evidence and thoughtfully restaging some of the testimony to prove to themselves whether the crime could have been committed as charged. "12 Angry Men" was shot in black-and-white even as the rest of Hollywood was going for color, and that reinforced the movie's starkness and added a level of thematic irony: the case wasn't as black and white as it seemed.
Mikhalkov's version pulls politics and ethnicity into the mix, with the youth now an adopted Chechen orphan and the dead father a former member of the Russian military. As with the American version, "12" presents a cross-section of people from different walks of life. One (Yuri Stoyanov), for example, makes a big deal of the fact that he was educated at Harvard and clearly feels superior to some of the others because he's a TV exec. Another (Sergey Garmash) is a taxi driver who wears his prejudice on his sleeve. He makes no bones about his disdain for the youth because the boy is from Chechnya. The oldest is a cautious Russian Jew (Valentin Gaft) who is the first to be persuaded to change his vote when he obviously empathizes with issues of ethnicity. So when one man (Segei Makovetsky) keeps the 12 men in the juror's room because of reasonable doubt, it's the fact that he could persuade another of his "peers" that begins to soften or unsettle the others. Look for Mikalkov in an extended cameo as the foreman of the jury, and look for the director to shake things up in ways that we never saw in the original film. The jurors tell stories of their own lives that become just as compelling as the story they're collectively trying to understand.
"12 Angry Men" was born out of the tradition of character seethe, and the whole film is just one big bubbling pot of steadily boiling emotions. But Mikhalkov announces in the title sequence that he's going to tell the story with a little more style, a little more auteurism. It begins early, when the men are escorted to a school gymnasium where a long table is set up for them to sit at and deliberate. Instantly, they behave like children, rummaging through lockers. One of them pulls a Triple-G bra out and seems mesmerized by it. Another finds a hypodermic needle, and the next thing you know it's being flung like a dart. The murder they contemplate is a war-zone episode, and bizarre scenes like this one in which the old men go a little over the top signify that this too is a war zone. As they deliberate and deliberately reconstruct the murder scene, there are cutaways to the accused young man and his flashbacks of the war. There's also a little more preposterousness in what we're expected to swallow, but the momentum of the film carries you along.
Because of its confined nature, "12" feels like a stage play, with a dozen men taking turns talking, and the artifice is exacerbated by the heavily symbolic use of a bird that joins the men. During moments like these, the dialogue and drama carry the weight of the film and Mikhalkov's heavy-handedness. For me, though, it was in those small unexpected moments of humor and eccentricity that unfold which make "12" engaging. Did I like the ending? Not particularly. But I felt that it was an interesting remake of a film that departed from the original nearly as often as it stayed the course.
"12" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and it features a pleasing amount of film grain, true colors, and a decent amount of edge detail for a DVD.
The audio is a Russian Dolby Digital 5.1, with English and French subtitles. Like the video quality, the audio is solid but unspectacular. There's not much in the way of sonic robustness, though in fairness when the bullets start flying the rear speakers snap to attention and we get a fuller sound than we do elsewhere. At times, though, the sound feels a little flat.
There are no bonus features, which is surprising.
"12" is ultimately as thought-provoking as "12 Angry Men," and the addition of a Russian-Chechen element creates a level of depth that the original didn't have. But brace yourself for some heavy-handed stylistic and narrative devices, because unlike Lumet, Mikhalkov doesn't seem to trust 12 angry (or disturbed) men in a room to pull this off. And it takes him 160 minutes for him to come to that conclusion.