Aleksei Balabanov hit a nerve (and the local box-office) with this ‘New Russia’ gangster tale about a kid from the ‘stix,’ fresh out of military service, who says goodbye to Mom & small town life before heading to St. Petersburg where his big brother is a mob hitman. We follow this Pilgrim’s Progress as he makes some unlikely friends on the street and gets to know the territory; he hardly needs to ‘learn the business’ since his army training, presumably anti-terrorist, was like Prep School for his new occupation. Less stylized and less OTT then some of his later work, the film makes a great entry point on Balabanov, playing out with some of the raw edge of a classic ‘30s Hollywood gangster pic, more SCARFACE/’32 than SCARFACE/’83 . . . and all the better for it. The action is kept human-scaled and the issues reduced to near abstraction, more concerned with the modern mores that have seen St. Petersburg turn into a new Wild West. Not that Balabanov doesn’t stage some flat out fabulous chases & complicated hits. A combination rub-out/jazz-party staged simultaneously on two floors is a particularly cunning triumph. As the supremely confident new guy in town, Sergey Bodrov has some of the street-smarts and acting economy of a Russian Steve McQueen. But his tragic early death at thirty in ‘02 probably makes him more of a James Dean figure. (That would make Russia just about the last country with a film industry to have one.) Now, Balabanov has also died, just this May at the age of 54.
DOUBLE-BILL: The classic Hollywood gangster pic this most resembles is probably Bill Wellman’s THE PUBLIC ENEMY/’31 with James Cagney’s breakthru perf. But for more Balabanov, there’s the much coarser sequel BRAT 2/’00 or the wild ride of BLIND MAN’S BLUFF/’05.