Issue 69 (2020)

Roman Prygunov: Billion (Milliard, 2019)

reviewed by Frederick H. White © 2020

milliardMatvei Fedorovich Levin (Vladimir Mashkov) is a successful, but ruthless, banker. When his partner dies unexpectedly, the partner’s daughter stakes a claim to half of the business. Matvei declares that the entire company is his, so the daughter, Irina Leonidovna (Marina Petrenko), fires him and bans him from his own corporate headquarters. On paper, Matvei does not own anything. From this point onward, Billion (Milliard, 2019) is a typical heist film in the tradition of Ocean’s Eleven (1960; 2001) and The Italian Job (1969; 2003). Only in this version the twist is that Matvei will form a criminal crew from children he has unknowingly sired. As it turns out, an unscrupulous doctor collected and sold the genetic material of rich and famous patients in the 1990s. Now, Matvei must rely on his newly found children to get his money and business back by stealing the original business documentation that is held in one of his former banks in France.

Written by Andrei Zolotarev and directed by Roman Prygunov, Billion never quite achieves the glamour and allure of Ocean’s Eleven. Vladimir Mashkov is convincing as the ruthless billionaire and the movie is replete with striking cinematography and a compelling soundtrack; however, the actual caper itself, the finale in particular, is uninspired. Filmed in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and on the Cote d’Azur in Marseille, Nice, and Monte Carlo, the film leaves open the possibility of additional adventures for Matvei’s new crime family, once they are all released from a French prison.

milliardMany will recognize in Mashkov’s portrayal of Matvei echoes of Pavel Lungin’s Tycoon (Oligarkh, 2002) in which he played the Oligarch, Platon Makovskii. Tycoon was based on the life and career of the Russian Oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Yet in Billion there is little discussion of the lawless 1990s. In fact, nothing is explained as to how Matvei acquired his money or his business assets. The focus of the film is on what constitutes a family. In one of the more poignant moments, Kolia the hacker tries to connect with Matvei, who explains that a father is more than just genetics. A father is someone who is committed to raising and supporting his children. The clear message is that Matvei does not want to be Kolia’s father. The bank heist changes Matvei’s understanding of fatherhood and his definition of family.

milliardFor Western audiences, the lack of an explanation for Matvei’s wealth is tolerable, but for Russians it is a detriment. After all, the bandit Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) of Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1997) and Brother-2 (Brat-2, 2000) is still a national folk hero. Similarly, Russians recall with nostalgia the TV series The Brigade (Brigada, 2002), which depicted Sasha Belov (Sergei Bezrukov) and his boyhood friends’ success as a criminal gang. Notably, Russians also remember the demise of the bandit hero as depicted in Petr Buslov’s Bimmer (Bumer, 2003) and Bimmer 2 (Bumer—fil’m vtoroi, 2006) (see White 2016). Therefore, it is not surprising that Russian film critic Andrei Arkhangel’skii would be troubled by the lack of context for Billion. For Russian audiences, there is a recent past that cannot be easily overcome when introducing a businessman like Matvei. In fact, Arkhangel’skii argues that Russian cinema is still constrained by the notion that wealth of this kind was gained only through criminal activity.

milliardTo this point, Prygunov himself had found critical success previously with Soulless (Dukhless, 2012) and Soulless 2 (Dukhless 2, 2015)—films that concentrate on the vacuity and corruption of the first decade of the Putin era. They also reimagine the contemporary superfluous man in Maksim Andreev (Danila Kozlovskii). The 19th century political commentary found in Ivan Turgenev’s Rudin and Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov can be detected in Prygunov’s depiction of contemporary Russian politics, business, and society. Is it not easier to withdrawn from society than to engage with an authoritarian political system? In these two films, there is an underlying protest against Putin’s white-collar corruption, which is missing in Billion. Whether the lawless 1990s or the corrupt 2000s, Matvei must be a product of these turbulent business environments.  

Therefore, the conundrum for Billion is in imitating a western film genre, while ignoring the Russian realities that must inform the characters that populate the filmic narrative. Beyond the glamour of western heist films, it is necessary that the criminals are likeable. The audience wants Danny Ocean and his crew to succeed. However, Matvei is not particularly likeable as a businessman or father, even after he embraces this new designation. More specifically, within the Russian context, rooting for Matvei to rightfully reclaim the fortune that he probably illegally acquired in the 1990s is definitely problematic. Because Matvei is not a charming bandit, but rather a less endearing Oligarch who has grown even richer due to the corruption associated with the oil and gas industry boom of the 2000s, Billion cannot overcome its own Russian cultural specificity.

Frederick H. White,
Utah Valley University

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Works Cited

Arkhangel’skii, Andrei. 2019. “Chelovek – eto zvuchit bedno: Chemu uchit fil’m ‘Milliard’”. Ogonek 15 (22 April): 28.

White, Frederick H. 2016. “Balabanov’s Bandits: The Bandit Film Cycle in Post-Soviet Cinema.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 25 (2): 82-103.

Billion, 2019
Color, 101 minutes
Director: Roman Prygunov
Screenplay: Andrei Zolotarev
DoP: Il’ia Averbakh
Production Design: Mukhtar Mirzakeev, Anastasiia Egorova
Composer: Oleg Belov
Editing Vazgen Kagramanyan
Cast: Dmitrii Astrakhan, Fedor Bavtrikov, Aleksandra Bortich, Pavel Chinarev, Grigorii Kalinin, Vladimir Mashkov, Gela Meskhi, Marina Petrenko
Producers: Rafael Minasbekyan, Vadim Vereshchagin, Vladimir Maslov, Binke Anisimov, Ibragim Magomedov
Production RSS Production, Central Partnership Sales House with support from the Cinema Fund
Distribution Central Partnership

Roman Prygunov: Billion (Milliard, 2019)

reviewed by Frederick H. White © 2020

Updated: 2020