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Rider Named Death
In the early days of the 20th Century, the Russian government was under attack by socialist rebels. Using violence and terror to achieve their goals, these people assassinated some of the highest ranking officials in the government. In 2004 Russian director Karen Shakhnazarov looked back on this violent period in his country's history with the movie A Rider Named Death.
Based on the life of socialist revolutionary Boris Savinkov (refered to as George in the movie) and adapted from his writings, A Rider Named Death takes place in 1906. The Socialist-Revolutionary Party has succeed in killing a number of government officials, and now they've set their sights on Governor-General of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich Romanov. A small cell lead by the enigmatic George (Andrei Panin) is assigned the job.
George only has a few people to help him, but they are all dedicated individuals who want to overthrow the government by violent means. Erna (Kseniya Rappoport) is their bomb maker who is desperately in love with George, Vanya (Artyom Semakin) is a poet who has convinced himself that he's doing God's will, Fyodor (R. Bershauer) is a working class peasant who wants to avenge his wife's death and Genrikh (Aleksei Kazakov) is a university student who believes in the power of violence. Together they plan the Duke's death. But as the plots fail and the group shrinks in size, it looks like they will not be able to achieve their goal.
This film had an interesting premise, but it never lived up to its potential. There were several reasons why this film didn't succeed, and part of it was that it isn't aimed at American audiences. For a movie steeped in political intrigue, they film never gives a background to the action. I assume that Russian audiences don't need any such information, but it would have helped people who aren't up on their Russian history. They only discussed the reasons why the government should be overthrown in the briefest fashion. This isn't a fatal flaw though, I can easily imagine that things were not very good for a majority of the people in Czarist Russia. If they had spelled it out a little more though, it would have made the film stronger.
The movie also asks you to sympathize with terrorists, something that is a little hard to do in America after 9/11. I assume it's just as hard in Russia after the Beslan school massacre in 2004 and the attack on the Dubrovka Theater in 2002. I didn't feel pity when one member of the cell dies after throwing a bomb into a carriage containing a woman and children, though the film wanted you to feel sorry for the man.
There isn't as much tension and suspense in this movie as you would think. A group of violent, wanted criminals out to assassinate a powerful official sounds like the type of movie that would have a lot of intrigue and nail biting scenes, but this movie just doesn't deliver any of that. A lot of the film takes place in a music hall where the group plots out their attacks and argues over who gets the privilege of throwing the first bomb.
The film was a little weak on characterization too. After each member of the cell describes why they want to overthrow the government, usually in a single sentence, their character never evolves further. At one point Erna tells George that Vanya has declared his love for her, but we never see Vanya acting this way towards her. George, the leader of the group is an enigma. I suspect that the film makers did this deliberately, but he is the most dedicated member of the group, and the only one who never states why he's a terrorist. He betrays little emotion throughout the film, and while Panin's acting is excellent, you are never sure what his motivation is.
Ultimately this film is asking if the ends justify the means, but without seeing the reasons for this violent opposition to the government or the effect the assassinations have on the society, it's hard to come up with a good answer to that question.
The film comes with the original Russian soundtrack in stereo, along with optional English subtitles. The movie sounds good overall. The dialog is strong, and the sound effects and background music are clear. The bomb blasts and gun shots are not reproduced very well though. They sound a little flat and lack impact. This is the only real problem with an otherwise solid soundtrack.
Kino has presented this film in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. (The IMDB list a ration of 2.35:1, but Kino assures me that it is an erroneous entry.) The image quality itself was very good. The colors were bright, and the details were strong. You could see the sweat rolling down Erna's brow as she's making her bombs and the light pinstripes in George's suits. Digitally, the film doesn't fare as well, though the defects are not major. There is some edge enhancement to the image, and though it wasn't heavy handed, the picture would have looked better without it. When the camera pans over the cobblestone streets, or zooms in on the opera sets at the end, the details shimmer slightly too. This encoding defect is minor though and is only noticeable if you are looking for it. Aside from the fact that they didn't present this movie in its original aspect ratio, it's a nice looking film.
The only extras are a trailer for the film and a text bio of the director.
This film is interesting in parts, but ultimately fails. They don't provide American audiences with the background needed to really understand the characters motivation for overthrowing the government, but even more damaging is that you are supposed to sympathize with terrorists. The film is also just about devoid of suspense. Scenes of where the group is about to carry out an assassination should be tense and draw the viewer in, but in this movie they play out like just another scene. If you are interested in Russian history and the period before the October Revolution of 1917, this would be a good film to check out. As a piece of cinema though, I found it lacking. While this isn't a bad film, it's just not very good. Rent it.