They're an unlikely justice league, the jurors in Nikita Mikhalkov's "12." One is a self-absorbed music-hall actor, another's a bigot. There's a dimwit transit worker, a cowardly TV executive and a timid bureaucrat. They are thrown together by chance to decide the fate of a Chechen 18-year-old on trial for the murder of his stepfather, a Russian officer. In a decrepit high school gymnasium (a proper jury room is under construction) the men debate the case, which at first seemed open-and-shut.
When the first poll comes in with 11 votes of "guilty," the lone holdout, an engineer, calls for a more thoughtful examination of the evidence. This solid, prosperous man tells the others a riveting story from his own life. He was once an alcoholic on the brink of suicide when a single person took the time to look beyond his failings. Careful attention must be paid, he warns, and the panel takes another vote.
So it goes as we discover the prejudices, hopes and experiences driving each of the jurors. Mikhalkov's cast is strong and diverse, with each character sharply etched and credible. Sergei Makovetsky, the initial holdout, appears to be an indecisive milquetoast, his integrity and honor emerging step by believable step. Valentin Graft, playing an elderly Jew, cautions the others that even the unlikeliest things can happen: His own father had an improbable affair with an SS officer's wife. Sergey Garmash is riveting as a Moscow cabbie who loathes non-Russians and calls the defendant "a stinking Chechen dog." Director Mikhalkov himself plays the strong, quiet jury foreman, a military veteran who spins the story in an unexpected direction in a late, pivotal scene.
The action is mostly confined to the gym, but Mikhalkov's imaginative staging, inventive lighting and close focus on his cast removes any hint of claustrophobia. He is less successful with flashbacks to the youth's war-torn childhood. The images of urban warfare are electrifying but intrusive, and almost irrelevant to the central story.
"12" builds on the sturdy structure of Reginald Rose's courtroom classic "12 Angry Men." The film turns the murder trial into a metaphor for 21st-century Russia. The symbolism can be heavyhanded, with the crummy gym standing for the post-Soviet state's jerry-built social contract ("We've got new lights but old wiring," the bailiff notes). Yet the heated deliberations are a gripping analogy for Russia's turbulent mix of ethnic divisions, corruption, Western influences and idealism. At two hours and 33 minutes, it's ambitious to the point of being overstuffed, but bracingly dramatic nevertheless.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186