The magnificence of Sidney Lumet’s irreproachable 12 Angry Men was the simplicity—and brevity—with which a legal injustice was brought to light by methodically revealing the holes in the prosecution’s case. But Reginald Rose is no doubt somewhere in the ether screaming “guilty” over the latest screen version of his classic play, a hamfisted attempt that sledgehammers subtlety and alters the outcome so much as to befuddle and infuriate those patient enough to trudge through 159 minutes of this stuff. Set in a Russian school’s shoddy gymnasium, 12 chronicles a jury’s deliberations over a Chechen youth who allegedly stabbed his adopted father. So far, so good. But things start to go terribly wrong terribly quickly.
The inherent sound difficulties that accompany filming in a gymnasium soon make for a very chaotic, overwhelming experience. 12 quickly descends into a series of empty, echoey, phlegm-filled screeds from the various jurors, none of which make any sense in the context of examining physical evidence. Worse, “guilty” votes are changed after these overheated soliloquies, making you wonder what the hell is going on with the Russian legal system.
One of the admirable traits of Rose’s play is how the 12 men form a community, defending one another, learning from one another, refusing to listen to hatemongers. There is no such attempt made here. In fact, when one juror engages in a little deliberate cruelty with another who is undecided, no attempt is made to stop him, and the whole revolting episode ends with the undecided juror vomiting in the men’s room. It’s truly hard stuff to sit through.
Worse still, director Mikhalkov takes this movie in a political direction, inserting evidence that points to a conspiracy and results in a final vote that’s based more on morality than on cold, hard facts. It doesn’t help that he pollutes his movie with incessant, pointless flashbacks depicting Chechen rebel violence, leading to a final shot that is bound to have the audience scratching its collective head. As a film about what it’s like to exist in a Russian society in transition, 12 succeeds. As an example of how to take a masterwork in a different direction, it’s a dismal failure.