If I could go back in time and change one event from the past, it wouldn't be anything found in history books. Rather, I'd pinpoint the moment that Peter Jackson fell in love with movies and stop him from seeing that film. If I could stop the boyhood dreamer from growing up to make the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it would stop me from having to suffer through more crap like 1612, which attempts to adopt Jackson's bloated directorial style and add onto nine of some of the most boring hours of my life. It's like a bad meal that keeps repeating.
The two things that drive me nuts about the post-Jackson action landscape are the protracted exposition and the slow-motion mixed with food processor editing that sucks all the life out of the fight scenes.
The Russian-made 1612, as the movie takes the first forty excruciating minutes to tell us, is the story of Russia in a state of turmoil. A fake tsar has given the Polish and the Catholics entry into the country, and his eventual unmasking as a fraud leaves the nation without a leader for many years. The Time of Troubles, they call it, but apparently not trouble enough to keep it interesting. The main plot involves a new move by the Poles and the Papists to seize control by restoring Tsarina Kseniya Godunov (Violetta Davydovskaya) to the throne, having kidnapped her years earlier when they killed the rest of her family. Lucky for the Tsarina, a precocious serf named Andrei (Pyotr Kislov) was there to see this all go down, and he's also there when a boat full of enemy soldiers and mercenaries brings the Princess back to the motherland.
All of this is told in a series of criss-cross flashbacks and present-day maneuvering, as Andrei gets his ownership transferred to a Spanish soldier of fortune (Ramón Langa), eventually assumes his identity, and single-handedly rescues the Tsarina from her captors and helps turn the tide of resistance. His fake Spanish may suck, but he learns how to swordfight like a real Caballero when the dead mercenary returns to train him in his dreams. No, really. At least those scenes are lifted out of the Antonio Banderas Zorro movie and so at least have some old-fashioned buckle in their swash. The Tolkien new agey symbolism that informs the rest is reserved for Andrei's daydreams where he stares at symbols of unicorns in a state of bliss akin to a pervert watching Hannah Montana.
Actually, cut out all the shots of the unicorn wandering the misty forest or of unicorn totems and you'll cut a quarter of the movie. Cut out all the shots of the various characters staring into space, either dreaming or pondering or longing for a part in a better movie, and another quarter would be gone This would then leave us with about an hour of action time, which could be good if it wasn't bogged down by that style I mentioned earlier. How did we come to this? Who decided that slow motion makes fight scenes more exciting? The problem with the current state of action filmmaking is that the guys in charge slow down all the wrong stuff, all the things we don't need to see, and then they chop up the rest so that the real good stuff goes by so fast, we can barely tell what is going on. What is the point of choreographing a big battle if you're going to string it together with nothing but two-second shots?
So, convert all the slow-motion into normal speed and you'd cut another 30 minutes right there, turning an overblown 143-minute snoozer into a pretty good brawl with a few pauses for that exposition (itself shortened and now manageable). The performers are more than capable of pulling off a swordfight and trading cannon fire, do we really need this lame-o story getting in the way?
Goofball unicorn scenes aside, the art direction and costuming of 1612 are actually quite good. The Polish army looks amazing with their feathered wings attached to the back of their armor, and when the Tsarina is allowed some nice clothes, those are lovely to look at, too. The actress herself is a bit of a vacuous presence, so they could have stood to make her clothes even more ostentatious, giving us some kind of distraction from all the nothing going on with the model. Kislov is pretty unconvincing as Andrei, as well; he looks like the Russian Shia Labeouf. Only the supporting players seem willing to have fun with the preposterousness, and it can be a kind of entertaining when the other various soldiers are hamming it up and getting all grunty, bloody, and sweaty.
To be fair, the problems really do begin at the top. The script by Arif Aliev (Mongol) is way too long, too full of unnecessary details. The climax is a series of miniature false climaxes, the kind of teasing that makes you think you will finally be released from agony, only to be told, "Wait, there's more." The more you get is made all the more turgid by the fact that the actual climax is once again cut up with narrative explanations, this time flash-forwards to the decisions of power made once the fighting is over. Director Vladimir Khotinenko is ambitious, spinning and sliding his camera all over the place, but it's a little too Zack Snyderish at the same time--too posed, too forced, too obsessed with gore and hokey hocus pocus. When every shot is cranked to 11, then 11 stops having any impact. Unlike Snyder, there is nothing else distinctive about his visual aesthetic; in fact, for all the care that went into building this production on real locations and outfitting the actors in real clothes, Khotinenko and director of photography Ilya Demin light the scenes so that they look cheap, like an episode of Xena rather than leftovers from 300 (the film the box art is so eager to have us compare 1612 to).
I suppose if I had to boil it all down, the downfall here is that 1612 has designs on classic tales of swordplay but tries too had to make the story fit in our current video game world. You don't follow the grape with the grain, as they say; the results at worst will make you sick, at best just put you to sleep.
The 1612 DVD has one of the weirdest glitches I have ever seen. At chapter 12, the screen goes black for five seconds or so, there is an audible beep, and then...what? The layer shifts? The tape flips over? Someone switches a reel? My TV doesn't have a projectionist to fall asleep and miss his cue! What the hell?!
Other than a few more stutters at scene changes, the rest of the digital transfer for 1612 is very good. The anamorphic widescreen image is bright and colorful, free of enhancement or compression issues. A 2007 production, the DVD is free of dirt or scratches.
The Russian audio is mixed in 5.1 and is a solid presentation of a rather good soundtrack. The audio effects are very well done, and the music swells with authority. A 2.0 stereo mix is also available.
The optional English subtitles are in yellow and move at a good pace. When characters speak anything other than Russian, the Russian subtitles are burned into the picture, forcing the English subtitles to the top of the screen.
The big extra on 1612 is a 42-minute making-of featurette, "1612: On the Set of History." This is a pretty good behind-the-scenes look at the movie, with lots of on-set footage showing the film being made and featuring lengthy interviews with the director, writer, actors, and other significant crew members. Probably more than you want to know if, like me, you end up not digging the movie, but hey, at least they tried.
There is also a photo gallery and an unappealing theatrical trailer.
Skip It. This historical action movie is an overly serious, under-adrenalized mess. 1612 is a classic story told with too many modern tics. The tale of a lowly serf who helps save his homeland from the scourge of Catholicism and return the Tsarina to her rightful place amongst the unicorns is a boring mess of showy filmmaking and bad writing. Watching it felt longer than the collective years since the real story took place. I'd almost rather sit through all of the Lord of the Rings movies again--but not quite.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.