Ever since Tony Montana begged us to say 'Hello" to his little friend, the epic crime drama has been in kind of a tailspin. While Martin Scorsese can occasionally revive it with either masterful (Goodfellas) or fascinatingly flawed (Casino) results, no one else seems to be able to capture the chutzpah and the showboating of a typical mafia melodrama. For every varied version that mostly works (Tarantino's Reservoir/Pulp productions, The Soprano's depressed Don dimensions), there are tons of trash heaps stinking up the Cineplex (and home theater cable box) with their pre-packaged paisan pus.
Perhaps the reason why there are so many substandard gangster groaners is because the filmmakers fashioning this filmic feces aren't paying enough attention to their productive predecessors. Most confuse sprawling for scope and all encompassing for epic. They waste time on opulence and elegance, robbing the story of all sense of realism or authenticity. They mistake something like DePalma's operatic cocaine-fueled insanity for the format they must follow, and think that moviegoers are so familiar with the hoodlums they are harboring that they don't need to delineate characters or backstory.
Such is the case with Tycoon: A New Russian. Watching this movie is like witnessing the worst elements of the Cosa Nostra narrative stripped of all their drama and deadliness. Instead, we get a stupefyingly stiff story set in an non-descript ex-super power on the verge of an economic and ideological identity crisis. If it had focused on the ex-Soviet Union circa the early 90s, we might have had something special to celebrate here. Instead, this is just a vodka soaked Little Caesar, without any of the wit or wickedness we usually associate with classic crime thrillers.
Plato Makovski is dead – the direct result of an ambush and assassination. The conglomerate he founded with childhood friends Mousa, Mike, Viktor and Larry – Infocar – is floundering on the verge of collapse. The government has intervened and threatens to investigate its holdings. A politician has bought their TV station, more as a way to suppress negative press about his campaign than any desire to keep the public informed. And one by one, his lifelong partners in Infocar are dying off. It is up to a rural judge named Chmakov to figure out just who Makovski was, how this self-made tycoon came into so much wealth - especially from such humble beginnings (he and his friend were mathematicians) and if there is a government conspiracy to keep the murder under wraps. Naturally, warring factions are forced to the surface, not only to protect their profitability, but to make sure their names aren't associated with, or actually on the death list.
Thinking it's crafting a new world order Godfather, but actually playing more like that pathetic, pap-ish mini-series The Last Don, Tycoon: A New Russian is the same old syndicate story told in an incredibly convoluted style. Based on a real life oligarch – a fancy term for "ruler" – and inlaid with the kind of crime and punishment parameters inherent in the genre being garroted, this smelly sturgeon is like the US version of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, except without all the narrative coherence. Trying to paint a picture of modern Russia while relying on the old school stunts of backstabbing and double dealing and/or crossing, we end up with a film that never once gives us a sense of who the bad guys are, and why we should care what bold, borderline illegal activities they are involved in.
The initial problem with this narrative is its lack of identifiable characters. Certainly, Tycoon is loaded with people, individuals given an air of importance or sense of menace by the filmmaking or the sinister soundtrack. But we never get the impression of watching real people interacting. Instead, we feel the aggravating arrangement and retrofitting of archetypes in an attempt to mimic the more potent elements of American crime cinema. There's the older bosses, the slimy supposed friends, and the foolish young punks who think they can muscle their way through the establishment with bravado and balls. We see the corrupt government officials, the persons paralyzed by a desire for power and the foolish femme fatales whose only flaw is falling for men who make illegal actions their butter and brown bread. But we never learn who Plato Makovski, his secretive associate Larry, or his bumbling school buddies Mike, Mousa or Viktor really are. Instead, they are all pawns in director Pavel Lungin's cinematic game of chess.
Too bad then that Lungin is not up to the narrative challenge. If he had the skill of, say, a Coppola or a Scorsese, he could easily get away with making his characters more iconic than idiosyncratic. Instead, he shows little lyricism, even less logical storytelling salience, and an overdone desire to substitute wealth for decadence (a completely excessive birthday party for Plato has none of the resonance you know Lungin was looking for). There are long passages in this film where what passes for dialogue is dumped on the audience in uninspired piles, producing very little intrigue and even less interest. By the time the plot is twisting and turning toward its tired end, we no longer care who is alive, who is dead, who the traitor is and how high up the conspiracy goes. Occasionally feeling like a Soviet version of Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate expose', this All The Peristroyka's Men is far too talky with no emotional investment for the audience. Lungin could have saved his saga with a little aesthetic charm. Instead, Tycoon feels feeble and flaccid, never powerful enough to fully engage us.
While it is safe to say the Lungin has not been completely influenced by every facet of the Hollywood gangster film (his compositions have more in common with those decent, if derivative police dramas on BBC America), his screenwriters obviously had classic Tinsel Town on the brain when they crafted this convoluted story. Basing part of their plot on the true life tale of auto magnet Boris Berezovsk (which also formed the foundation for co-writer Yuli Dobov's novel Bolshaya Pajka) and then throwing in a little Citizen Kane flashbacking to complete the conceit, we get a lot of individual moments that are supposed to paint a picture of our hero Plato, each vignette rounding out another facet of his figure. The only problem is Lungin, Dobov and writing partner Aleksandr Borodyansky don't pick out the proper portions of Makovski's life to illustrate their point.
A perfect example of this hobbling happenstance occurs early on. Plato and pal Larry have just "traded" for 200 cars when a local gang tries to shake them down. Larry insists on a morning meeting, and after beating Plato up, the thugs take the injured man with them, for "safe keeping". Now, instead of jumping to the next logical sequence – Makovski's getting roughed up, or better yet, finding a way to get in tight with his captures – we jump to Larry's meeting the next day, a derivative scene of game playing and weak oneupsmanship. If this is Plato's story, lets see how he reacts under pressure (or in this case, a potential pummeling). But Lungin is trying to keep the gears of his grandiose stratagem pointed ever forward, and has no time for little character defining asides. Indeed, we are merely to take the cinematic shorthand provided for our players (we get the drunk and the moron, the hothead and the quiet, contemplative genius) as they tell a weather-beaten investigator the story of Plato's life. Too bad we couldn't find better narrators to provide our plot.
Also, the vast criminal conspiracies taking place are never ever explained. Initially, we have a hard time figuring out what Makovski and his University pals are up to. We understand the selling of educational materials (thesis papers and documents that allow businessmen to apply for degrees from Russian colleges, and in return, increase their ability to interact with the State rules and regulations), but once we're into brooms, private sector "trading" and the secreting of monies in Swiss Bank Accounts, just how all this filthy lucre has made its way into the characters hands is not clear. It seems to be a matter of professional paper pushing, or blind government bilking, but we don't have enough information to figure it out. In the end, when bureaucrats are barking orders and political candidates are plotting to kill corrupt military men, the entire illegal enterprise seems to be more about pissed off personalities and dignity-based vendettas than anything to do with business.
Indeed, Tycoon is an international thriller minus the dread, an operatic crime epic missing all the elements that define such a stratospheric filmmaking mannerism. This is Scarface without the violence or the vigor, Goodfellas without a single understandable or likeable character. The acting is all elemental, never rising above a professional, ponderous level. As Plato, Vladimir Mashkov is all hairdo and hubris, required to play a matinee idol as mob boss without a single psychotic subtext. The rest of the cast is equally ineffectual at bringing any amount of threat to the situations inherent in the story. Only Levani Outchaneichvili as Larry has any impact onscreen, and that's because he has a face that seems to be registering seething anger even when he's discussing the best way to top a blintz. From the blank, blah Maria (Mariya Mironova) who appears tossed into the tale to confirm and confuse Plato's heterosexuality, to the deranged diva dynamics of Nina (Natalya Kolyakanova) the bitter imbiber who goes kabuki in a strange scene following the suicide of a major character, the performances are fraught with flaws. They all keep Tycoon from turning out right.
In the end, we get a half-baked bit of Baltic gangster garbage that's neither novel nor nuanced. The script can't keep its problematic plot straight and never once tries to instill the story with some manner of external intrigue or political punch. Take these Muscovites out of their Soviet setting and you could have a less linear example of the Guy Ritchie realm of non-glamour bad guys – except without the wit or the cinematic daring-do. There probably is a very good film about a Russian mathmetician who parlayed his talent for economic manipulation into a definite empire as a New Capitalist oligarch. And the former Soviet USSR post-communism crumble seems like a subject ripe with possible plots. Too bad Lungin didn't delve more deeply into his abattoir of anti-social behavior. Tycoon could have used a more manipulative, glamorizing hand. Anyone who ever questions why Hollywood polishes their criminals to a romanticizing sheen need look no further than this dull derivation of same. Without the glitz and the glitter, the mobster is just one boring bad guy.
Presented in a rather flat, lifeless 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the transfer of Tycoon is as colorless and claustrophobic as one imagines life under the old KGB must have been. There are no real pigments here, just varying shades of green, gray and brown. Perhaps director Lungin settled on this tint-free facet when he made his movie. Maybe the living dead print was all New Yorker Videos had in its vaults. Whatever the case, this film is as visually uninspiring as its narrative is numbing.
Offering a Russian-only Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack (with decent English subtitles) Tycoon does provide a pleasant auditory experience. The voices are always clear and understandable and the ancillary atmospheric elements – music, effects, spatial locations – are well represented. Nothing here will knock your sox off or move you to tears of aural excellence. This is just solid sonics, nothing more or less.
New Yorker skimps on the bonus bits by providing two trailers (one of the US, one for the rest of the world) and a 20+ minute interview with director Lungin. During this decent Q&A, there are hints that the subject of this story - real life oligarch Boris Berezovsk - was far more involved with the production than at first thought. Lungin also admits that this film is meant to indict the entire Russian governmental system, from the local level all the way up to the top. He views his film as a searing exposé of all the corruption and crime occurring behind the authoritative walls of power. Too bad he never once confesses to having no idea how to frame a shot, or carry on a narrative. This self-serving discussion is merely an opportunity for Lungin to espouse his personal bias and beliefs, and offers no real insight into the filmmaking process. Otherwise, unless you're desperate to know what other goodies New Yorker Video has up its sale-through sleeves (in the manner of more cinematic advertisements), you'll agree that Tycoon is rather impoverished in the added content department.
Like a series of still lifes you've seen before, poorly rendered and stripped of all their sparkle, Tycoon is a deadening drift down a far too familiar path. Unless you are some manner of Soviet cinema buff, or have some mad desire to see every mobster movie ever made, this film barely deserves your careful consideration. A rental may not harm you, but the best advice is to skip this scat all together. Pavel Lungin may have some skill as a director, and his cast seems up to the task of playing persons both powerful and pedantic. But for some reason, Tycoon just flounders when it really should spark chills and thrills. Maybe it's the meandering, poorly constructed storyline. Perhaps it's the lack of any real violent visions. Or maybe its just we've seen better in this particular cinematic genre, and Lungin is incapable of hanging with his far more skilled hoodlum homeboys. Whatever the case may be, this New Russian needs to be retired to the salt mines of Siberia, pronto. This film will leave you as cold as the nights in that forbidden, frozen tundra.
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