Not to be confused with Ridley Scott’s 1977 film The Duellists, Alexey Mizgirev’s film revolves around one tough yet dashing duelist. Set during the 19th century, it’s a Russian variation on Les Misérables without the singing. Yakovlev (Pyotr Fyodorov) is a Jean Valjean figure who is left for dead somewhere in the Aleutian Islands. His Javert-like nemesis is the depraved Beklemishev, who likes to whip insubordination off the backs of young soldiers in his charge. As Yakovlev recovers from his wounds with the help of a local medicine woman and an indigenous back tattoo, he returns to Mother Russia transformed into a brooding, laconic gun for hire. But he’s not dueling noblemen solely for the rubles: Yakovlev is after Beklemishev for purposes of revenge. The IMAX camera captures a wealth of detail, like the silhouettes and fabrics of women’s gowns, but films them without much warmth. Copious amounts of gore and viscera saturate the screen, with skulls and bodies oozing lush puddles of blood. Like our hero, writer-director Mizgirev has a sharpshooter’s cold pair of eyes. His lens adds an antiseptic quality to the many deaths, as the duelist disposes of each new challenger from a chilly distance. It’s Fyodorov’s performance that communicates the emotional burden of killing. We can see the cost of all this unnecessary carnage in his resigned and sorrowful face.
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