I have never been a fan of remakes but if you remake a movie it should be one that needs improving. When it comes to remaking classics, or bonafide masterpieces, it is better to not even try. Sydney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is a film that never needed to be remade, although it was done once before with a serviceable made-for-TV effort in 1997.
While that remake was a nice exercise, it brought nothing new to the table and remains, in my opinion, a wasted effort. It is important to remember that Lumet’s masterful film is not an original either but a remake of a classic episode of Studio One in Hollywood. It is proof that a remake can be made into something great if a director brings something new to the table.
Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov did bring something new and unique to the table and creates a film that pays homage to the Lumet film while creating something fresh and different with his movie 12.
The Lumet classic is best known for his mastery of the camera. Twelve jurors set up in a small jury room and ponder the fate of a boy accused of murder. One juror dissents the guilty verdict and as the movie wears on, and the patience of these twelve men are tested, the camera closes in on them.
The room originally appears spacious thanks to the camera looking down on the men but transforms into something small, cramped and uncomfortable to both the jurors in the film as well as the viewers watching the events unfold. The camera lowers until there seems to be little room to maneuver. We see what it must be like to be trapped in this room, in what seems to be an impossible situation.
The first change Mikhalkov (who also plays the jury foreman) makes to his film is eliminating the entire feeling of claustrophobia. This is a dangerous decision because it eliminates what made the original great, to begin with. With the feelings of entrapment lifted, what is left to tell the story?
Instead of being sequestered in a small room, the 12 jurors are led to a high school gymnasium because the courthouse is undergoing renovations. With a large gym, the feelings of being trapped are replaced with a wide open space — allowing them to wander around a room filled with numerous objects to distract these men as they ponder the case of a young Chechen (Apti Magamaev) charged with murdering his adoptive father, an officer in the Russian Army.
This brings me to the biggest change between the two stories. Instead of just giving us a young man whose face we barely see in the original film, we are given numerous flashbacks during the film, showing the boy as he grows up. This takes us completely out of the jury room on occasion, something Lumet never dared — but adds a new dimension to the film.
We see the young impressionable boy dancing with soldiers outside his home, learning to play with a knife. We see numerous shots of the boy’s mother and dog. We also see the war-torn country as the battles continue ravaging the countryside. By adding in these scenes, although short and sparse of dialogue, we are given a new depth to the film.
We are presented with a social commentary for life in Russia, one that allegedly brought tears to the eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The claustrophobia is still present in spirit as occasionally we cut to a scene of the accused Chechen boy as he awaits the decision, pacing his cell and dancing towards the end. While the jury is not as claustrophobic as the originals film’s 12 men, the accused is enclosed in a small box.
Without the trapped jurors, suffocating in the heat, the social commentary is not enough to carry the film. It is a good thing there is not a weak member of the cast. The same stereotypes from the original are present here, although in some cases, such as with the Jewish man, it takes on a completely different meaning in Russian culture.
A standout from the cast is Sergei Garmash, playing the same role as Lee J. Cobb. He is a racist cabbie who has a deep centered hatred for the young boy on trial, based both on race as well as on the specific crime itself. He is involved in scenes that are meant to break down the weaker members of the jury, driving one man to race to the bathroom, sick from the abuse.
While the Lumet film checked in at a nice, tight 96 minutes, this film stretches out to 2 1/2 hours. However, the film never feels that long because the pacing by Mikhalkov is brisk and the actors involved always interesting. Each juror gets his story to tell, almost like a radio play, as the camera simply circles the men and allows them to deliver their monologue.
Every story adds to the swaying of the jurors to the side of the accused boy, despite evidence against him. While only three or four jurors from Lumet’s film remains in your memory, every one of the men from 12 has a story that is interesting and engaging, memorable long after the final credits roll.
The stories are less matter-of-fact information and more parables, ranging from the man who steals from the rich dead to return to the living poor to the story of a man who, down on his luck, takes hostages to finally get what he believes he deserves, only to be given freedom by a police officer with a heart of gold. None of these stories are cheesy or melodramatic but each packs an emotional punch that leaves the viewer amazed at the talent on display.
The revelations and twist at the end of the movie feel strangely out of place. What made Lumet’s conclusion so great is that, while the jurors found holes in the story, they gave their decision and the movie ended. It was not about whether or not the boy was guilty, but about whether or not the jurors believe it.
12 does not withhold the information. We are shown the truth about the Chechen boy’s guilt or innocence, we are shown the incident as it unfolds to the witnesses and we are given a needless twist in the jury room that leads to a glimmer of hope and redemption. It all feels like an episode of Law & Order as the climax unfolds. It is a flaw, but never once threatens to diminish the greatness of the film as a whole.
12 was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar back in 2007 but sat on the shelf until earlier in 2009 when it was finally released in the United States. The release was limited and now it is finally available on DVD.
While there are things in the film that ring untrue (a Russian jury only needs to return six not guilty votes for the acquittal, making the entire premise false) they are negligible when put into this amazing film. The performances are top notch and the direction is amazing.
I believe you should never remake a classic unless you plan to bring something new and unique to the table. Nikita Mikhalkov found that something and creates a movie that pays proper respect to the film it is remaking but ends up as masterful and beautiful as anything made today.
This review was previously published on Chud.com.