A boy is caught in the middle of the war between Russia and Chechnya; he sees horrible atrocities and is adopted by a Russian soldier. Then he kills his adoptive father. Or so the prosecution suggests in 12, Nikita Mikhalkov’s engaging re-imagination of Sydney Lumet's 12 Angry Men. The film follows 12 jurors as they spend the night determining the fate of the Chechen boy.
Much like Lumet’s original, 12 pivots on a handful of incredible performances. But where 12 Angry Men was something of an experiment for Lumet -- keeping the camera inside the room, focusing on a small cast that never changes -- 12 is less concerned about the daring direction that characterizes its source material than using the original story as a vehicle for political allegory. The film frequently steps away from the jurors as they debate in a school gymnasium, since the courthouse is remodeling the old room of deliberation. When 12 leaves the jurors behind, it is full of beautifully saturated photography, lush landscapes, and a somewhat scattered plot. We watch the boy dance in his cell and recount what actually happened to bring him to Russia in the first place.
Indeed, the film is an allegory of modern Russia: the racism, the battles still taking place, the fall of communism, the way the War in Chechnya and so many wars before it have impacted the national psyche. It tells the story of what Russia’s turbulent history has done to the group and the individual, as each member of the jury showcases their acting chops in a monologue in some dark corner of the gymnasium, triggered by a revelation in the case. These monologues are the cornerstone of the allegory, revealing how racism has impacted them, or immigration, or communism, or their nostalgia for the “old Russia.” And for the first two hours, the film succeeds in creating an interesting dialogue about Russia. All of the actors contribute great, believable performances, nuanced with humor and personal struggles -- but unlike 12 Angry Men, this is not enough to make the film work.
Mikhalkov’s major failing here may be that the allegory takes over and becomes the reason for the narrative. By the film's midpoint, the actual trial starts to become a footnote to the anecdotes of these men and their encounters with the new Russia. The jurors' reasons for believing in the Chechen boy's innocence appear thin, and by the time they put it to a final vote, it’s hard to believe anyone is being convinced of anything. The murder is nothing but a vehicle for displaying their empathy, their dark secrets, their humanity, and the end of their belief in the inherent goodness of life.
Throughout the bulk of the film, Mikhalkov and fellow screenwriters Alexander Novototsky-Vlasov and Vladimir Moiseenko follow the trajectory of the original screenplay with accuracy, so it is to their credit the film still manages to surprise. The filmmakers could have chosen any one of the three endings they had in mind but, unfortunately, decided to go with all of them. What results is the unraveling of a focused film into a fever dream of twists, tying symbolic imagery together too neatly, with a quick barrage of personal digressions that proves the film's emphasis on allegory over story. The disastrous, blindsiding shit-storm of an ending makes it feel as though they want to set up a sequel. Possibly 12 Angry Men: The Revenge?