(director/writer: Pavel Lounguine; screenwriters: Alexandr Borodyansky/from the book The Big Slice by Yuli Dubov; cinematographers: Alexey Fedorov/Oleg Dobronravov; editor: Sophie Brunet; music: Leonid Desyatnikov; cast: Vladimir Mashkov (Plato Makovski), Andrei Krasko (Chmakov), Maria Mironova (Maria), Sergei Oshkevich (Viktor), Alexandre Samoilenko (Moussa), Mikael Vasserbaum (Mark), Vladimir Golovin (Ahmet), Vladimir Goussav (Lomov), Levani Uchaineshvili (Larry), Alexander Baluev (Koretski), Vladimir Steklov (Colonel Belenki); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Catherine Dussart and Vladimir Grigoriev; New Yorker Films; 2002-Russia, in Russian with English subtitles)

“A criminally unimaginative gangster story based on the life of notorious high-roller billionaire entrepreneur Boris Berezovsky.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A criminally unimaginative gangster story based on the life of notorious high-roller billionaire entrepreneur Boris Berezovsky, here called Plato Makovski (Vladimir Mashkov), and his meteoric rise as one of the richest men in the world and just as sudden fall. It’s a very cold soap-opera like crass melodrama, with the pulpish and weakly fleshed-out characters always kept at a distance. It fares slightly better as a slick history lesson on recent events in a changing Russia, as it throws a spotlight on the Gorbachev years and its embrace of capitalism during perestroika. It then marches on to the corruption of the privatization of public services during the Yeltsin era. The story is loosely adapted from the novel The Big Slice by Yuli Dubov. Writer-director Pavel Lounguine (“Taxi Blues”/ “Luna Park”) lazily patterns his movie after the narrative of The Godfather, Part II, though not even coming close to achieving the same results. There are murky flashbacks galore and a number of set-piece assassinations plus too many familiar scenes of corruption depicted between business, crime families and greedy politicians. It’s meant to be an expose epic like Citizen Kane, but looks more like a second-rate Scarface.

The film begins as an investigation into the assassination by a car bomb of Plato Makovski, who owns the media giant Infocar–a private Russian television network empire. There’s one honest investigator, the gruff provincial DA Chmakov (Andrei Krasko), whose efforts to get at the truth are thwarted by the corrupt Kremlin politicians, as the story intercuts his investigation with flashbacks of the life of Plato and his wise guy cohorts. The story is told in constant flashbacks starting in the late-’80s some fifteen years before the assassination, just after perestroika has broken up the Soviet Union. Five close friends of the intelligentsia, all Jewish and some Russian students — consisting of the reptilian-like Plato (known as the “rat charmer”), the mathematician genius Viktor (Oshkevich), the loyal Mark (Vasserbaum), the volatile Georgian entrepreneur Larry (Uchaineshvili), and Plato’s playful childhood friend Moussa (Samoilenko). Plato and Viktor abandon their successful academic careers in exchange for the new Russian private economy and life. They like to play games with the Russian bear, as they immediately work out a scam to trade brooms for cars. Ahmed is an elderly and dignified crime boss who is their arm of protection, as he becomes one of a long list of thugs they make unholy deals with. The movie moves so fast we at no time see how they make their money or what motivates them, or are there any psychological probes attempted to get at their characters. All we get to see are the results of their business deeds, which include a sexy mistress named Maria (Mironova) for Plato to have fun with. Maria weaves in and out of the story without any focus, so she seems more like a prop than a real character. She has left her political bigshot old school bureaucratic justice minister husband Koretski (Baluev) for him and the new order. Plato takes her more seriously only when he realizes she has fathered his child.

After Plato’s murder we are taken through a dizzying interplay of meetings between these ruthless businessmen and their interplay with crime figures, such as a former hero of the Afghanistan conflict, a crippled and face maimed Colonel Belenki (Steklov), who is now a scam artist who manages to deal cars for them by a scheme cooked up to avoid paying custom taxes. In the process, we meet an ambitious but obscure country bumpkin Siberian governor, Lomov (Vladimir Goussav), who gets his claws into Plato and turns viciously against him after first being promoted for high political office by him. The alcoholic Lomov (who is meant to resemble Boris Yeltsin) along with the smarmy bribe taking Koretski become the mafiosio-like businessman’s worst enemies.

The ambitious film tries to say how all these dishonest businessmen, gangsters and greedy politicians screwed the masses, who were starving when Russia lost its grip as a superpower. But it also seems to at the same time want to glorify Plato as someone who understood the new order and just was clever enough to take advantage of the situation. I was confused as to what lesson the filmmaker meant for me to take away. As for the narrative, it never got untracked and always seemed to be running at a fast pace but seemed to be going nowhere. It never sustained a mood long enough for me to care about a single character or did it show it cared how anything turned out except in a superficial way.

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