With 12, director Nikita Mikhalkov does more than simply translate the American theater chestnut 12 Angry Men into Russian. Mikhalkov practically feasts on the original, best known for the 1957 Henry Fonda jury deliberation film. 12 milks its source material’s themes of social conflict, seasons it with contemporary Russian culture, and sets a 12-course banquet at the jury table.
Mikhalkov keeps the crime's and plot structure's basic details intact: A dozen men men must decide the fate of a youth accused of a brutal stabbing. At first the case looks open and shut, but a sole "not guilty" hold-out vote keeps the verdict from passing unanimously. A mousy-looking engineer (Sergei Makovetsky) initially frets that they’re rushing to judgment, then reveals a steely intellect as he proceeds to methodically demolish the prosecution’s case. He faces tough, bullying opposition from an alpha male cab driver (splendidly simian-looking Sergey Garmash), whose blatant racism makes his opinion seem immovable.
12 Angry Men partly hinges on considerations of justice and civic duty. The themes prove particularly sharp in the film’s Moscow setting, where unofficially corrupt Communist rule has given way to an openly corrupt capitalist system. To further ratchet up the tension, 12 makes the defendant a Chechen youth (Apti Magamayev) accused of killing his adoptive Russian father — a crime that throws Russia’s military conflict in Chechnya into stark relief. 12 occasionally cuts from the jury room confrontations to scenes of the young man in his cell. Mikhalkov reveals both the accused's idyllic homeland dreams and wrenching memories of the war-torn country.
12 embraces the piece’s theatricality. It's evident that every juror will get at least one big speech or moment in the spotlight. The colorful character actors take on a variety of diverse types, including a Harvard-educated TV producer and a Chechen-born surgeon, and play their roles to the hilt. Mikhalkov, whose distinguished directorial career includes the brilliant 1994 Oscar winner Burnt By the Sun, also plays the jury’s foreman. His vote changes the stakes of 12’s notions of social responsibility.
Most stage-to-film adaptations wrestle with visually opening up the material, lest a jury room, for instance, become too claustrophobic and boring. Mikhalkov comes up with a brazen alternative. 12 mostly takes place in a high school gymnasium, as the usual jury room is undergoing renovations. The location allows enough room for camera work and charged re-creations of the crime, as well as medicine balls and other pieces of athletic equipment to give the actors plenty of stage business. Plus, the gym setting provides a metaphor for the pitched competition between the defense and prosecution teams. 12 itself proves merely guilty of being terrific.