When do you know your chances for being acquitted by a Russian jury are bad? When a juror compares a schoolgirl's brassiere he found to his mother-in-law's? When another weighs your fate on the gravity of a miracle? Or maybe it's just when the lone Henry Fonda character on your side is a former drunk who used to scream at people on trains.
The Russian film “12,” a take on the 1957 classic “12 Angry Men,” returns — this time in Moscow — to the claustrophobic, smoky atmosphere of a deliberation room where the 12 of the title debate the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father. As in the original, one holdout from an immediate guilty verdict makes a case for a reasonable doubt as others ever so slowly join him, yet “12” makes a number of changes, not always for the better.
As in the original, the holdout initially offers no solid reasoning except that a jury should talk a little before sending someone to his doom, a good argument that opens up the debate and causes a change of attitude for some and indignation for others. Most of the jurors, assembled rather formulaically from a studious variety of backgrounds, also have a story to tell that relates to the case or to a position someone else is arguing, an addition that seems more useful as commentary on Russian history and life than on ethics and law.
Probably the most useless new element is the series of flashbacks to the time leading up to the murder, as “12” shows us the defendant's perspective, giving in to the impulse to escape every so often from the one-room set of the original. Rather than add excitement, however, the extra scenes only manage to deflate some of the tension created by the jurors' arguments.
Their personal stories are entertaining in their own right, but they don't do as much to show whether we should root for the innocence or guilt of the young man whose freedom is at stake. During some of these moments a viewer may rightly wonder if the movie has retained the educational impulse of the original. In the end, “12” manages to create much of the tense interplay between combative personalities found in the black and white version, but only when it is sticking to its well-worn teleplay (by Reginald Rose). Twice as long as “12 Angry Men,” whenever this newer film offers its long-winded, more-odd-than-angry anecdotes, one wonders if the defendant would be better off with Lee J. Cobb to worry about instead. (PG-13) 159 min. HHHII S