Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Dead Man's Bluff

I got this gem on DVD in the remaindered bin, four for $20 or something like that. Directed by Aleksei Balabanov, it's the flipside of Eastern Promises being, in part, a satirical examination of the Russian mobster milieu just as the David Cronenberg film was a meditation on "family" values and the moral code of the amoral hoodlum. In a prologue, Balabanov has a Russian history teacher explaining how the nation became a kind of hybrid capitalism in which one has to have a scorecard to tell the villains from the villains. The new Russian oligarchy consists of oil-rich former communists and many levels of thugery. My guess is that as the unlikely protagonist pals who guide us, clumsily, through their subcultural miasma are soon identified as soldiers for a "mustachio Pete"-type suburban crime boss with little or no class, they're definitely bottom feeders.

They're also right out of Pulp Fiction and its prologue, Reservoir Dogs. In the former, we were treated to the "banality of evil" in the exchanges between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson (discussing, for example, why the French don't have "Quarter Pounders" as they kill a little more time outside the apartment of their "hit"). In the latter, there is a lot of seemingly gratuitous violence meant to scare the be-Jebus out of you, but done with wry undertones (imagine Michael Madsen...DANCING! as a rookie cop goes up like James Cagney at the end of White Heat). Balabanov's script is not half so clever, but it's got plenty of laughs and plenty of the same audacity.

The game of the title is a variant of "Russian roulette," the only difference being that the brothers Sergei and Simon, the Mutt and Jeff duo who replace Travolta and Jackson, have stacked the deck -- er, cylinder -- not just putting one bullet in, but informing their rival gang victim he's got to keep trying. These two are "charmingly" played, incidentally, by Aleksei Panin and Dmitri Dyuzhev. There's a lot of mix-up, double- and triple-cross, and to-do with the McGuffin: identical cases containing American dollars (who wants rubles?!) and two big bags of heroin. Meanwhile, the bodies pile up; one particularly gruesome shoot-out occurs in a morgue-like place where a big pile of dead men and women form a kind of holocaustic background.

The film is marred by grinding, monotonous rock music which seems to be rheostated to maximum volume during the seemingly endless wandering of the nasty brothers from one part of Moscow to another, but the prologue teacher's explanation of how the mafia became the leadership and how the leadership became the mafia is shown at the very end, when the not so dynamic duo occupy a high-rise office with a view of the Kremlin in a "straight" business that has them in Armani suits and answering, not really, the Mustachio Pete's fat boy son, all grown up now and twice as sinister as his dad. What a hoot! I loved it.

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