What happens when the director who brought you Brat and Brat 2 decides to mock the Russian gangster movie genre he created? The answer is Zhmurki (aka Dead Man's Bluff) directed by Aleksei Balabanov. The tagline of Zhmurki - "For those who survived the Nineties" - tells you what to expect.
Dimitri Dyuzhev (Brigada) plays the dimwitted killer Simon
The film opens with a group of teenagers sitting in a Russian classroom. The teacher tells them that "start-up capital is what begins everything - with it, you can start a business and multiply your investment many times over. The key thing is how to get it..."
The movie then flashes back to a Russian town outside Moscow in "the 90s" where we meet two bratvas, Simon and Sergei. (In addition to a few scenes in Moscow, the film was shot in Tver, the city formerly known as Kalinin, and Nizhniy Novgorod, the city known as Gorky in Soviet times). These small time hoodlums are working for the local mob boss, Sergei Mikhailovich (played by Nikita Mikhailkov, best known to American audiences for his work in Burnt by the Sun). Unfortunately, neither gangster is very bright and trouble ensues when they are ripped off by a corrupt cop and another gang of dimwits.
Many comments on Zhmurki's IMDB page have compared the movie to Snatch. There are many similarities, but director Balabanov has increased the body count substantially over the English original (not unlike Volkodav compared to Conan the Barbarian). The tedious violence distracts the viewer from a genuinely funny script that highlights the acting talents of an ensemble cast. Nearly every actor we've seen in Russian gangster movies from recent years is here, including a cameo by Andrei Merzlikin (Bumer, Bumer 2) as Mikhailovich's bodyguard. Merzlikin's character struts around his boss with a gun wearing a dirty spetsnaz uniform he probably bought at a flea market. For his part, Mikhailkov plays the part of a crass New Russian to a fault, wearing hot pink suits, doting on his obese son, and threatening to burn his architect to death. Andrei Panin (who played Sasha Belov's nemesis in Brigada) is almost unrecognizable in his cameo as Mikhailovich's timid architect.
Nikita Mikhailkov plays Sergei Mikhailovich, an outrageous New Russian
Sergei and Simon first run into trouble when they try to shake down a local doctor who runs a heroin lab out of his kitchen. Representatives from the doctor's kryshe or "roof" show up with guns drawn ready to shoot the two bratvas, but Simon is quick on the draw and shoots them first. The bodies keep piling up as an unlucky mugger also falls prey to Simon's pistol shot.
The plot thickens when a dirty cop decides to hire three inept thugs to steal the suitcase full of cash that Mikhailovich gives Sergei and Simon to payoff a local prosecutor. The film flirts with anti-Semitic stereotypes at this point, as the attorney receiving the suitcase full of cash happens to wear a yarmulke. One of the bandits hired by the dirty cop is an Ethiopian who insists that he is Russian while his colleagues mock him with racist remarks. To Simon and Sergei's surprise, the lawyer hands them another suitcase in return for the cash, and this one has four kilos of heroin inside.
Instead of stealing the cash suitcase from Sergei and Simon before they enter the office like they planned, the three criminal masterminds instead make off with the suitcase full of heroin. Without knowing how to unload the drugs, the three bandits panic and send their leader to see the dirty cop. Sergei and Simon get to the dirty cop's apartment first and torture him until he admits to hiring the bandits. There is more gratuitious violence when Sergei and Simon ambush the three robbers at their apartment and find the stolen heroin. This part of the movie is probably not worth watching unless you happen to enjoy watching people blow their brains out at close range (hence the English title Dead Man's Bluff, another term for Russian roulette).
Zhmurki movie poster alluding to Simon's love for 1980s British swing band The Stray Cats
The only thing that makes this dark comedy worth sitting through are the jokes poking fun at Russia and Russians in the 1990s. The slow-talking brute Simon tells the quicker Sergei that he is practicing his English. Sergei makes the Russian Orthodox symbol of the cross whenever he sees a church, even if he has just murdered or tortured someone. Simon drives his 1980s Beamer around town like a madman, regularly swerving into oncoming traffic while bragging about how many times he has driven drunk. Sergei asks Simon "how can you eat that crap" when Simon wants to go to McDonalds. After Simon knocks over a few kids to cut to the head of the line, he orders a Coke, burger and fries. "That will be 73,000 rubles" replies the McDonalds clerk. Outside the McDonalds, Sergei runs into an old friend, the Boar, who is now making money hand over fist in "the capital". The Boar asks Sergei, "Are you still shooting people for Mikhailovich?" and then tells him that "no one does business like that anymore". This gives Sergei the idea to rip off his boss and head out for Moscow with a suitcase full of heroin. Ten years later, we see Sergei and Simon kicking back, enjoying legal immunity as MPs in the Russian Duma, looking out over Red Square. Who says crime doesn't pay?
Clearly Zhmurki is not for everyone, and only people who really like Russian gangster movies will appreciate the wicked humor of this violent farce.
Watch a scene from the movie here (WARNING: Violent content, no subtitles)