Russia, STW Film Studio, 2005
Color, 105 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Screenplay: Stas Mokhnachev, Aleksei Balabanov
Cinematography: Evgenii Privin
Art Director: Pavel Parkhomenko
Cast: Aleksei Panin, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Nikita Mikhalkov,Sergei Makovetskii, Viktor Sukhorukov,Dmitrii Pevtsov, Kirill Pirogov, Aleksei Serebriakov, Renata Litvinova, Garik Sukhachev, Aleksandr Bashirov
The Russian Film Symposium has screened seven of director Aleksei Balabanov’s ten films, ranging from examples of art-house or auteur cinema to blockbuster
hits. Dead Man’s Bluff most certainly falls into the latter category. A comedy about corruption, gangsters, and the quick rises and falls of fortune that characterized Russia in the mid-1990s, Dead Man’s Bluff has not impressed film critics as much as it has tickled Russian audiences. Russian soccer star Stas Mokhnachev supposedly wrote the screenplay for Dead Man’s Bluff on a bet. He brought the script to producer and head of the STW studio, Sergei Sel'ianov, who turned it over to Balabanov. The film was shot in the course of one and half months. It premiered on 27 May 2005 in New York and opened one day later in Moscow.
This simple comedy of errors revolves around two unreliable, trigger-happy mafia lackeys, Sergei (Aleksei Panin) and Simon (Dmitrii Diuzhev). Despite their tendency to botch every job, they are charged with the task of exchanging a suitcase of money for a suitcase of heroin. News of the transaction spreads quickly among the various criminal groups that roam the small city. Predictably, the job is thwarted when three criminal hacks intercept the narcotics shipment (though they would have preferred the money). The remainder of the film focuses on Sergei and Simon’s search for and recovery of the drugs.
Humor in the film derives less from the uninspired story than from the depiction of criminal activity in Russia during the mid-1990s. Visual representation of the era consists almost entirely of bad haircuts (with a particular focus on bangs); a variety of unattractive jackets, ranging from the iconic raspberry-colored sports coat of Russian mafiosi to the black trench coat of thick-necked thugs; and a beat-up BMW. The gangsters’ readiness and willingness to shoot every living obstacle is more a display of their buffoonery than of some sort of violent nature. Characters die with comic theatricality—blood splatters, bodies slump, heads drop to one side, and a final grunt escapes the lips. The star-studded cast—including Balabanov-film regulars Sergei Makovetskii, Viktor Sukhorukov, and Kirill Pirogov, in addition to Renata Litvinova, Aleksandr Bashirov, Andrei Panin, and Nikita Mikhalkov—creates some amusing caricatures. Among these the aloof, but sexy waitress, the corrupt police officer, and the cheesy mafia don are the most memorable.
Certain pieces of the film’s dialogue—made up almost entirely of short, caustic remarks—have been compared to the highly stylized repartee in Quentin Tarintino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). Sergei and Simon’s discussion of the superiority of Russian bliny to McDonald’s hamburgers, in particular, has elicited comparison to Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson’s debate about whether pork is or is not a dirty animal. Perhaps the most striking line in Dead Man’s Bluff is uttered repeatedly by the film’s one black character: “I’m not Ethiopian; I’m Russian!” To Russian audiences, this apparent impossibility—to be both black and Russian—is itself laughable, but his repetition of this line also emphasizes his defenselessness against the endless barrage of racist jokes hurled at him throughout the movie. However un-PC, it is just these jokes that receive big laughs from Russian audiences.
Aleksei Balabanov was born in Sverdlovsk on 25 February 1959. He made his directorial debut in 1989 with the documentary Egor and Nastia. His first feature film, Happy Days, was released in 1992 and won instant fame across Europe. Since then, he has directed nine films that have made it to the big screen (one project, The American, was abandoned). Balabanov is championed as one of the best contemporary Russian directors, whose films range from blockbuster hits to art-house sensations. Balabanov presently works at STW Film Company in St. Petersburg, which he helped found in1994 with producer Sergei Sel'ianov.
2006 It Doesn’t Hurt
2005 Dead Man’s Bluff
2002 The River
2000 Brother 2 (screened at the Russian Film Symposium 2001 and 2003)
1998 Of Freaks and Men
1995 Trofim (short)
1994 The Castle
1991 Happy Days