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Egor Konchalovskii: Antikiller (2002)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov©2004

Anti-killer is the second film by Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii (born 1966), who holds an M.A. degree in art history from the University of Cambridge, UK. Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii started his career as a clip maker, producing and directing more than 120 television commercials before he turned to feature films. His debut feature, The Recluse (2000), was a pioneering attempt to introduce the suspense-thriller as a genre in Russian cinema. Anti-killer is based on Danil Koretskii’s novel, which has sold five million copies in the countries of the former Soviet Union and has acquired cult status among readers of Russian pulp fiction. Like the novel, the film became the box office leader among Russian films in 2002. In 2003 Russian television broadcast Anti-killer as a three-episode mini-series that included all of the deleted scenes from the original theatrical release.

The plot of the thriller is simple: a former criminal investigator, Major Korenev (Gosha Kutsenko), gets out of jail, where he spent many years after being betrayed by his corrupt colleagues, and settles scores with his old and new enemies. These enemies are so numerous that some viewers and critics found the film confusing and considered the 114 minutes allotted by the filmmaker for the enemies’ annihilation somewhat excessive.

The film is set in post-Soviet Russia, but constantly flashes back to Soviet times. Korenev, also known by his prison nickname "Fox," went to jail when the Soviet Union was still alive, but returns from prison to a new country, Russia, which the film portrays as a lawless post-industrial wasteland ruled by competing criminal gangs. In this new country, the police, on the payroll of criminal bosses, play almost no role in law enforcement. Fox, therefore, has to take justice into his own hands. In the course of the film, Fox settles accounts with Shaman (Alexander Baluev), the criminal boss who sent him to jail; kills Ape (Viktor Sukhorukov), a sadistic gang-leader who kills and rapes randomly for art’s sake; topples the city’s major gangs; and reestablishes his version of the rule of law, which allegedly ceased to exist in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union. The film plays with the nostalgia for the loss of empire and opens with a symbolic scene in which Fox, still in his Soviet police uniform, pledges allegiance to the symbol of the Soviet Union: the hammer and sickle. What kind of new law will Russia get after Fox removes the criminals from power? One can only guess from the names of the characters that remain alive at film’s end. The only criminal boss who survives the war among the major gangs is nicknamed "Cross" (Sergei Shakurov). Moreover, at the film’s end, Fox’s own fate is in the hands of the new kingpin.

Among the film’s technical achievements is the editing of fighting scenes by Bénédicte Brunet. Together with a dynamic sound track, her rhythmic cutting creates spectacular battle scenes of gang warfare. While visually exciting, these sequences become too protracted and at times self-reflexive, which is good for art cinema but impedes action in a crime thriller. Perhaps these scenes seem to be so lengthy because Russian cinema still doesn’t have an established tradition of the thriller genre. Genre devices, such as fast paced editing of fight sequences, therefore, turn into self-serving demonstrations of artistic capability instead of just being commonplace devices in a film that belongs to the genre of crime thriller.

Several critics disapproved of the film’s seemingly superfluous citations of popular Western films. For example, the criminal boss "Father" (Mikhail Ul'ianov) is modeled on Don Vito Corleone; the scene in which Fox murders Ape pays homage to the bar sequence from Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado. These quotes are not redundant and actually fulfill an important function in a marginalized Russian national cinema. When 80 percent of films screened in the movie theaters domestically are Hollywood products, such quotes from American-made and domestically-distributed pictures confirm that Russian cinema is in touch with the global commercial cinema, at least via citations.

More important than the quotes from Western films are Anti-killer’s intertextual links with the Soviet cinematic and cultural tradition. Anti-killer recycles key narrative elements of Stanislav Govorukhin’s cult mini-series The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed (1979). As in Govorukhin’s series, the Moscow police in Anti-killer are unable to cope with criminals until the appearance of the protagonist with his own new code of honor. While Fox, the Anti-killer, is as violent as the criminals, he is neither indiscriminately violent nor violent for violence’s own sake. In this way, the symbolic title Anti-killer, referring to the individual who puts an end to murderous lawlessness, evokes The Age of Charity, the novel by the Vainer brothers on which Govorukhin based his TV series. The novel put a new protagonist at the center, Sharapov, who follows the law of charity, rather than the compulsion to achieve revenge at all cost.

Like the protagonist of Govorukhin’s film, Fox sets up the final meeting place, where the evil city gangs will be destroyed. Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii appropriated the nickname Fox from Govorukhin’s series, and, most importantly, he cast in Anti-killer two key actors from the 1970s cult series: Alexander Beliavskii as the criminal authority "King" and Ivan Bortnik as "Bedbug," a police informer. Bortnik is an especially significant choice because he is one of the few surviving friends of Vladimir Vysotskii, the actor who contributed more than anybody else to the cult status of Govorukhin’s series.

The most important link of Anti-killer with Soviet culture belongs not to the level of specific citations, but rather to the level of cultural master plots. Anti-killer rebuilds on new historical material the structure of the hierarchical model of a male family inherited from the socialist realist canon. The narrative structure of the film is based on the gradual elimination of the numerous false father and son figures until the structure reaches the singular vertical relationship between Cross-the-father and Fox-the-son. The fact that they do not meet physically is unimportant because the filmmaker himself makes a cameo appearance at the film’s end to establish a homoerotic bond between the two alpha males of the film.

The marketing of Anti-killer is also remarkable because its promotional poster revives another staple of socialist realism: idea-mindedness, that is, the cultural producer’s ability to follow (and possibly foresee) changes in state policies. Within idea-mindedness, the "task" of cultural texts is to foreshadow and allude to current policy changes and, if possible, to shifts in leadership that become iconic representations of the new policies. Anti-killer’s promotional poster positions the shaved skull of the protagonist against the seal of Soviet Union, creating the illusion of a halo surrounding Anti-killer’s head. The action figure of the former Soviet police officer restoring order in a lawless land provides a poorly disguised reference to the former KGB colonel trying to rule with an iron fist the lawless land that used to be the Soviet Empire.

While the analysis of intertextual links and elements of narrative structure casts light on the place of Anti-killer in Russo-Soviet culture, one can also interpret the film from the point of view of the picture’s place in the ongoing conversation among several generations of the Mikhalkov clan. Evidently, Egor went back to the heritage of his renowned grandfather Sergei Mikhalkov and filmed a post-Soviet adaptation of Sergei’s famous children’s poem about the new Soviet hero, the giant policeman "Uncle Steeple." While granddad’s poem ushered in one of the most radiant periods of Soviet history—the purges of the late 1930s—hopefully the grandson’s film will not serve as the sign of yet another brave new world, and the spectacle of butchery will remain merely a demonstration of film technique rather than of grim reality.

Alexander Prokhorov, College of William and Mary


Antikiller (Russia, 2002)

Color, 114 min.

Director: Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii

Script: Fuad Ibragimbekov and Danil Koretskii

Cinematography: Anton Antonov

Editing: Bénédicte Brunet and Olga Grinshpun

With: Iurii Kutsenko, Mikhail Ul’ianov, Viktor Sukhorukov, Sergei Shakurov, Alexander Baluev, Ivan Bortnik, Alexander Beliavskii

Production: M.B. Productions, Golden Key Entertainment, Central Partnership, and Russian Radio


Egor Konchalovskii: Antikiller (2002)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov©2004

14/07/04