Nikita Mikhalkov's sequel to his award-winning film Burnt By The Sun (1994) is a sweeping War War II epic, packed with stylish and stylised set-piece action scenes but also lumbered with a flailingly unfocussed storyline and an overreliance on war-film clichés.
Already released in Russia in its original three-hour version, this second part in a planned trilogy is certainly watchable and at times extremely well directed, but while certain scenes are impressively staged and shot with some real bravura, the film never fully manages to find a balance in terms of pacing or script.
The original Burnt By The Sun won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and also secured the Grand Jury Prize at the 47th Cannes Film Festival. Mikhalkov still has plans to release the final section – Burnt By The Sun 3. The Citadel – but whether there is an audience appetite out there for it is a moot point.
The film seems laden with influences from other films/TV series – Mikhalkov has already stated his original idea came from watching Saving Private Ryan, though it also feels familiar to Dr. Zhivago and Band of Brothers, while a little Inglourious Basterds also creeps in towards the end – and while it is distinctly Russian in terms of the tone, music and composition, it is also likely it was made with an awareness of an international marketplace which has shown a liking for war films in recent years.
The film begins in 1941, five years after events at the end of Burnt By The Sun, which saw General Kotov (played again by the director himself) sentenced to death. As the film opens his sentence is amended to non-political crime status, and after an attack by the German airforce on the camp where he is being held, he escapes.
Still deemed a convict, though, he is sent to a battalion made up of other criminals, and is sent to the front. He fights bravely and, despite being offered the chance to join a regular army unit, opts to stay with the convicts, still believing that his wife Marusya (Tolstoganova) and daughter Nadia (Mikhalkova) have died in a labour camp.
But the two women are still alive, with Nadia a young Russian pioneer who eventually becomes a nurse as the war wears on, while over the same period (the story is set between 1941 and 1943) Kotov's nemesis, KGB Major Arsentyev (Menshikov), is ordered by Stalin to find the former General.
Mikhalkov switches back and forth over the two-year period to follow the trials and tribulations of Kotov and Nadia, putting them in amidst a series of terrifyingly brutal wartime scenarios... though none overly unfamiliar to watchers of Second World War film and television.
There is an impressive set-piece about a bridge being blown up by Russian soldiers when faced by attack while hundreds of ordinary folk are still crossing; we have the Russian Red Cross ship carrying the wounded (and Nadia) attacked by the Luftwaffe; there is Kotov and his poorly armed fellow soldiers trying to fend off an attack by German tanks, and there is also a scene of Nadia being attacked by soldiers in a small rural village, leading to a revenge attack (not by her) that wouldn't have been out of place in Inglourious Basterds.
Equally there are some memorable moments – such as Nadia clinging to a floating mine after her ship has been sunk, reaching the shore and then the selfsame mine being struck by a Soviet ship carrying documents and massive busts of Stalin, one of which is blown into the air and lands next to her on the beach – but in truth it never feels breathtaking or original.
In fact, scenes of a German aviator flashing his rear-end at the Soviet and planning to deposit his own personal load onto the ship's captain, is weak rather than amusing, while one of the closing scenes sees Nadia being asked by a seriously injured soldier to show him her breasts. It is a poorly set up sequence and offers no dramatic payoff at the film's climax, despite a nicely set up shot to draw attention to her pale body in amidst the dark and grim carnage of the battlefield.
Nikita Mikhalkov is efficient and charismatic as Kotov, especially as the story draws on and he wearily fights on the brutal frozen wastes of the Eastern front, while his daughter Nadezhda Mikhalkova has perhaps the juicier role, as her character develops from fresh-faced young Russian pioneer to battle-hardened nurse.