Aleksei Sidorov: Shadow Boxing (Boi s ten'iu), 2005

reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2006

One has the impression that production of Aleksei Sidorov’s first feature film began with the marketing blurb: “He was raised by the Brigade. But Artem Kolchin then chose his own path: he became a boxer.” If this early plot element was indeed present in the original concept for Shadow Boxing, it somehow got lost in the process. Sidorov was able to make Shadow Boxing thanks to the great success of his 15-part television serial about the “lost generation” of the 1990s, but the early publicity was misleading in making this film appear to be a kind of sequel to the TV hit. We learn very little of the protagonist’s life before his championship fight, and the role of the bandit-business world in his past is unknown. The Brigade (2002) lives on not so much in the plot of the film as in its spirit and atmosphere. Beginning with the weird, apparition-like appearance of Sasha Belyi (Sergei Bezrukov) early in the film, the jargon of the bratva and, particularly, the identification of one of them as “brother” serve as markers of solidarity among those few who share an unspoken but instinctively understood sense of loyalty and justice. The link is further anchored by the performance of Andrei Panin, whose portrayal of near psychopathic malevolence is here different in its specifics, if familiar in its spirit. Shadow Boxing represents less a continuation of The Brigade than a mere echo of it. The viewer is apparently expected to recognize these echoes and adopt the peculiar moral stance that characterized Sidorov’s romanticized portrayal of the criminalized business world of the first post-Soviet decade.

The film begins as Kolchin (Denis Nikiforov) makes his final preparations before the championship bout against an American boxer. Before the fight begins, however, we are treated to a flashback in which Artem begins a romance with Vika (Elena Panova), the young opthomologist’s assistant whom he has charmed into certifying his fitness to fight despite her discovery of detached retinas that could lead to blindness if further injured in a boxing match. Artem proceeds to lose both the fight and his sight, after which he is abandoned by his promoter, the shadowy businessman Vagit Valiev (Panin), who refuses to pay for an operation to save the young man’s eyes. Driven by both love and guilt, Vika turns to an old boyfriend, a narcotics dealer, for the money needed for the operation, but she has the unfortunate luck to witness his murder before she can ask for his help. The rest of the film chronicles Artem’s struggle against a small constellation of antagonists who can be characterized as the shadows referenced in the film’s title not only because of the protagonists blindness, but also due to the peculiar architecture of the film itself. Characterizations depend on types rather than on personalities: mafiosi bosses, FSB agents, contract killers, police detectives, drug dealers. Psychological depth, to the extent that it comes at all, is an afterthought in the architecture of this film, and only Panin really succeeds in making his character interesting. While the plot is sufficiently motivated in the end, both Artem and the viewer are in a state of semi-confusion as the action proceeds. Artem knows what he is fighting for—his sight, his beloved, his honor, and ultimately, his life—but he is never quite sure against whom he is fighting. Only after he regains his sight do the shadows take concrete form, at which point the fight with shadows quickly becomes a fight to victory.

This rather simple unmasking of the shadows is one reason that the film disappoints. The shadows remain totally external enemies. It is symptomatic of a problem with the film’s genre. Many critics have referred to the confused genre of the film and Sidorov himself has admitted that it is something of a hybrid. For the first thirty minutes, the film is structured as a boxer movie reminiscent of the five American Rocky films (1976-1990). It then deviates radically from the standard structure in which, as exemplified by Rocky, the film must end with a fight in the ring, for it is only by way of the final fight that the hero will either prove himself to the world or free himself from his internal demons. Artem Kolchin, however, has no internal demons and thus a final fight would serve no purpose. The rest of the movie is mostly action film with a bit of melodrama mixed in. The positive hero never doubts himself or his love and never backs away from his enemy. Thus, the boxing theme must fade into the background and is recalled only by Artem’s prowess in hand-to-hand combat. This is most likely the reason that Nikiforov’s performance in the film makes a rather weak impression. Despite the work that the actor devoted to learning boxing moves, Kolchin remains essentially a cookie-cutter positive hero and gives the actor little opportunity for an interesting performance.

The other players are likewise unmemorable. Panova gives a competent performance as Vika, but the story of her transformation from cocaine addict and drug dealer to angelic medical student is related in a quick and unconvincing monologue and serves only to motivate her ill-fated visit to a nightclub. Her past is essentially superfluous to her character, which verges on the ridiculous with her declamations of Russian poetry and behavior reminiscent of Dostoevskii’s Sonia Marmeladova. Ivan Makarevich is mostly annoying as Vika’s younger brother, Kost'ia, for he is ubiquitous through most of the film without it ever becoming clear what necessary purpose his character serves in the story at all. Dmitrii Shevchenko, John Amos, and Aleksandr Kuznetsov do their best to make their characters interesting, but the dialogue is weak throughout and the conflict between Valiev and the FSB officer Nechaev (Shevchenko) fails to develop into the large-scale ideological face-off hinted at in their verbal sparring.

As if to compensate for the emptiness of the action, Sidorov saturates the film with all kinds of literary, cinematic, and cultural allusions. He calls attention to some of them (for example, the film Scent of a Woman [Martin Brest, 1992], the novels of Kipling) directly within the film’s dialogue, while others are left to the viewer to notice and interpret (the paintings in the Tretiakov Gallery that fascinate the American boxer’s promoter and entourage). Most ambitious is his use of Shakespeare’s Richard III, which is referenced throughout the film and serves as a commentary on the themes of justice and compassion as they figure in the characterizations of Valiev, Kolchin, and Nechaev. Ultimately, the film seems to cast all debates about justice in an ironic mode, and the many allusions seem to be little more than a set of knowing winks and jokes (the use of Aleksandr Veledinskii’s likeness for a Columbian drug lord is particularly amusing).

Yet what the film lacks in dialogue and psychological depth is made up for in raw energy. Sidorov’s script and direction move the action quickly forward with only occasional lulls. Aleksei Shelygin’s musical score augments the action perfectly and has surely contributed to the film’s popularity with fans. Raiskii’s cinematography makes landscape and cityscape shots as visually interesting as the boxing sequence. His special effects might not always be successful, but they are never too distracting. Shadow Boxing is a worthy addition to the list of recent blockbuster films that demonstrate the success and viability of domestic commercial cinema in Russia.

Quite objectionable, however, is the ending of the film, both its climax and epilogue. The cavalry-style arrival of the state security services (in helicopters!) to save the day in the nick of time is an unwelcome and overused device and serves to dwarf even further the significance of the entire conflict. Finally, it seems a bit presumptuous of the director to build a necessary sequel into the film’s denouement. Actually, the film promises us two sequels, as the cameo appearance of Bezrukov confirms that Sasha Belyi’s story is likewise not finished. Perhaps Sidorov remains fundmentally a director of serials, as the only conclusion of which he seems capable is some permutation of To be continued

Gerald McCausland (University of Pittsburgh)

Shadow Boxing, Russia, 2005
Color, 130 minutes
Director: Aleksei Sidorov
Screenplay: Aleksei Sidorov
Camera: Iurii Raiskii
Sound: Sergei Chuprov
Music: Aleksei Shelygin
Design: Pavel Novikov
with: Denis Nikiforov, Elena Panova, Andrei Panin, Ivan Makarevich, Dmitrii Shevchenko, John Amos, Aleksandr Kuznetsov
Producer: Ruben Dishdishian
Production: Central Partnership

Aleksei Sidorov: Shadow Boxing (Boi s ten'iu), 2005

reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2006

Updated: 14 Jan 06