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(2009) *** Pg-13
159 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Nikita Mikhalkov. Cast: Sergey Makovetsky, Sergei Makovetsky, Valentin Gaft, Mikhail Yefremov, Nikita Mikhalkov.

/content/films/3380/2.jpgReginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men has proven an evergreen property: it started life as a one-off television drama, became a much-produced play followed by a feature film, and eventually cycled back home as a cable TV-movie. The story of a jury mostly predisposed to lock up a teenage racial minority --save for one heroically hesitant juror--has served as a showcase for umpteen ensembles of American actors. Now Sony Pictures Classics has imported a Russian version called 12, a fascinating opportunity to see one of our modern dramatic classics reinterpreted in another cultural context.

Writer-director Nikita Mikhalkov and co-writers Vladimir Moiseyenko and Aleksandr Novototsky don’t just translate the material; they adapt it to address modern Russian history in ways much more complex than its American counterpart attempted. Here, the defendant is a Chechen teen swiftly prejudged by Russians not so sold on a united federation. The jury represents an all-male cross-section of off-duty professionals and retirees, including a TV network executive, an inventor, a college dean, a taxi driver, a surgeon, and a circus clown. One among them argues that the boy is being railroaded by the system, and that only the jury can pull the brakes.

The basics still work--varied personalities stuck together in a room and forced to come to an agreement--but Mikhalkov (who also turns in a cagey performance as the foreman) makes interpolations and injects considerable style with scene-setting montages and flashbacks establishing the boy’s war-torn past. The men are still angry, of course: their deliberations are charged with racism, including anti-Semitic comments that rankle a couple of the jurors. Those with pressing business particularly resent the holdout forcing them to reconsider the details of the case.

The arguments inevitably betray the true nature of each man’s personality, and often his politics. Many illustrate their points by slipping into stories from their pasts, giving a distinct impression that the room is haunted (by the ghosts of communism, as well). While the acting is impressive all around, Sergey Garmash earns top honors in the part originated on film by Lee J. Cobb: the last angry man to accept “reasonable doubt.”

12 isn’t flawless. The 159-minute running time turns out to be indulgent, with an unnecessarily lingering post-verdict denouement. The jury could have used a bit more diversity, as well. The script alludes to women only as idealized or demonized archetypes: one the defendant’s saintly mother, the other a “classic” example of “female jealousy.” And Mikhalkov overdoes it with his symbolism.

One symbol is essential: the jurors are led through a courthouse under renovation on the way to the temporary digs of a rundown school gym. Indeed, the lessons they will teach each other suggest a legal system desperately in need of rebuilding. Most of all, 12 serves as a reminder of the ultimate responsibility one can take, for a human life. As Arthur Miller might have said, these men deciding the fate of a teenage boy are all his fathers.

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