Deadly Code
R1 - America - Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (19th May 2014).
The Film

“Dignity, once lost, never returns.”

As Charlie Kaufman once wisely wrote, “Malkovich? Malkovich! Malkovich.” John "Horatio" Malkovich is as strange a performer as he is a person, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Simultaneously weird and wonderful, the actor recently appeared on “The Colbert Report” (2005-2014) to promote a film—not “Deadly Code”, which arrives on US shores with almost no fanfare, going direct-to-video—dressed in a pastel blue suit-and-sweater combo that he designed himself, for his own Techno-bohemian fashion line. During the interview, a particularly perverse Stephen Colbert asked if he could smell the actor, because of course he did; Malkovich obliged, because, again, of course he did. The scene would’ve been uncomfortably odd had it been the host and almost anyone else, but honestly it seemed perfectly in tune with Malkovich’s carefully cultivated public persona; an extension of his sphere of strangely commanding influence always exuded on screen. Clearly, someone at the studio—in the marketing department or otherwise—has faith Malkovich’s presence can produce enough of a reality distortion field to generate interest in “Deadly Code”, an Italian production about an interesting subculture and time period in Russian history, shot with a primarily-Lithuanian cast in Eastern Europe. Malkovich is one of the only known actors on screen in the film, an import now crossing the atlantic, available only on DVD and various digital distribution platforms. Curious then that he’s not really the star of the picture, despite his cover-filling frame and sole headlining credit on the DVD case art.

Malkovich is a supporting player in “Deadly Code”. His menacing mobster turned wise grandfather, Kuzya, is basically a Russian version of a latter day Vito Corleone. In his advancing age, he’s largely left to offering sage advice and acting as figurehead of his criminal clan, although there's still a bit of brutality left in him. Kuzya is an important character in the film, but "Code" is really the coming of age story of the gangsters grandson Kolyma (Arnas Fedaravicius), and Kolyma's friend, Gagarin (Vilius Tumalavicius). Based on a hotly debated memoir by Nicolai Lilin, a Russian-born writer now living in Italy, “Deadly Code” is known as “Serbian Education” in almost every market other than the United States (it’s “A Gangster’s Tale” in English-speaking Canada). Why someone changed the name, I haven’t a clue. I suppose, the logical answer is because Lilin is less known here; his book is too. But the dense if not daft “Deadly Code” dubbing is inline with the picture’s core moral hew, which grants Malkovich with the role of righteous, grandfatherly leader of a band of Russian Robin Hoods, The Siberian Urkas, who are the most feared gang in the criminal hotbed and cultural melting pot of remote Transnistria, a small and turbulently-formed republic between Moldova and Ukraine. The Urkas have a strict code: no drugs (dealing or use), fierce loyalty to one’s own family, and above everything else, respect for all living things—except policemen, bankers, and other systemic statues of outsider authority. Throughout the film—at least in the appropriate era—Kuzya and his underlings wage war on the distrustful Soviet government "dogs", and do everything in their power to disrupt the flow of military and police transports that traffic weapons and other goods through their territory. In the film's post-Soviet politiscape, little changes; those in power still abuse authority and are viewed as an enemy worth fighting against.

Working from a screenplay he adapted with writers Stefano Rulli and Sandro Petraglia, director Gabriele Salvatores staggers the story with a trifurcated timeline, setting scenes in one of three years: 1988, 1995, and 1998. The structure is loose, and the plot pivots within these periods quite freely, blending back and forth, often contrasting the climates of the region under Soviet and post-Soviet rule. The picture charts the rise and fall of a country and region in flux if not always growth, while simultaneously chronicling a much more intimate journey of childhood friends, Kolyma and Gagarin, as they grow from boys to men, each following a different and decidedly divergent path. It’s an interesting if not exactly original tale of friends slowly drifting apart, with the added drama of being a friend-turned-foe fable where the story is set against a backdrop of crime—and one of the characters is related to a crime boss no less. "Code" is not a story of a criminal and a cop, but rather a criminal and a criminal; the difference being one criminal has dignity, honor, and lives by a code, and the other doesn’t.

As boys, Kolyma and Gagarin grow up under the eye of grandfather Kuzya, who gives them switchblades and orders them to practice on pigs, while he tells not-so-coded tales of lone wolves and pack mentality. He spins yarns, moral parables, hoping that with careful guidance, the boys will become leaders who know right from wrong. Deeply devout, a clearly defined Christian who somehow has made peace with his faith and his profession (why are crime bosses in fiction, shucking away from authority, almost always also so steadfastly loyal to the highest one?), the older man has a rigid idea of what “right” is, although it often conflicts with what is legal. He uses the boys and their friends in a ploy to hold up government trucks that pass through Transnistria. In an unusually confusing skirmish during which the plan goes all wrong, a young Gagarin is captured, arrested, and imprisoned. As the story picks up years later, Kolyma has grown into a gangster like his grandfather—not a thug, and actually quite conflicted by his own actions. When we meet him, he’s picking up a recently paroled Gagarin from the train station. Right off, Kolyma and his band of childhood friends beat a shop keeper and take the protection money owed to them, which is actually a pittance compared to the man’s overall profits. Then, to teach him a lesson, Gagarin promptly beats the man further, to within an inch of his life, and takes the rest of the cash. Clearly Gagarin has changed, no longer a scrappy little boy but a full blown psychopath. Prison has taught him more than Kuzya ever could, or so he thinks, and he has little sense of moral right and subjective wrong anymore. His newer definitions of such concepts, informed by his time in the clink where he cozied up to a rival gang, certainly clash with what Kolyma has been taught.

A few years after that confrontation, the story finds Kolyma attached to an army unit making its way through the countryside on some unknown mission. What happened to Kolyma in the three years between meeting his friend again and, one assumes, no longer being his friend, or maybe even a criminal at all? The answer may lie in the summer of 1995, when the boys met Xenya (Eleanor Thomlinson), the daughter of a doctor, and who is not quite right in the head. As the duo soon learn, the girl may look like a grown woman but she has the mind of a child—certainly not a developed adult. But she’s obviously on the cusp of sexual maturity, even if she little understanding of what’s actually happening to her. Kolyma and Gagarin deal with this news in different ways. Kolyma, although attracted to Xenya, decides to merely befriend her; to his dismay, she develops feelings for him. And while Kolyma attempts to reconcile his inner turmoil over what is right, Gagarin charges forth with animalistic abandon. As is often the case, the boys come to blows over a girl of all things—albeit this girl is not the only thing to come between them.

“Deadly Code” isn’t the film I was expecting. It has problems—the screenplay stumbles through mishandled melodrama and cliches in its muddled middle act, which focuses a bit too heavily on the summer tryst with Xenya. But the acting is surprisingly decent, with Malkovich of course delivering a strong performance, and the Eastern European players are not shockingly unwatchable either. Fedaravicius and Tumalavicius in particular pull their weight; the former articulating his struggle and conflicting emotions, while the latter evokes an effectively unhinged quality in his unruly character. Unfortunately, in mixing Western talent and Lithuanian locals, accents are kinda all over the place. An American actor speaking English with a Russian accent sounds distinctly, distractingly different from an Eastern European attempting to do the same. But there are far fewer issues than I anticipated for a production that’s been re-titled and dumped direct-to-video in the US market. “Deadly Code” offers high quality production values and attractive cinematography, is both brutal and bloody, and yet proves balanced by its engaging coming of age story with an interesting structure. It is not a great film, and much of my praise comes with clarification that I had low, even bottom dwelling expectations, but I think the film warrants more attention than its likely to get with a dubious direct-to-video status.

Video

Filmed largely on location in Eastern Europe, on a sizable sum of €30 million, and photographed on 35mm film by Gabriele Salvatores’ frequent cinematographer Italo Petriccione, “Deadly Code” looks much better than your usual direct-to-video production. Of course, it only went direct-to-video in the United States, and played theatrically elsewhere, including in its native Italy. The frame is densely packed, with bold color and detail that’s often on the verge of bursting from the surprisingly narrow 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen confines. With vast landscapes and deliberately framed wide shots, the picture often seems better fit for cinemascope, although the 1.85:1 shape is definitely the intended ratio, and was probably chosen for the height, specifically to give Kuzya low angle dominance (there are also a few select sequences where the tall tower blocks being erected in the post-Soviet regime are name-checked with disdain for their arrogant, capitalistic dominance and oppressive appearance on the Russian skyline). A majority of the film, including nearly all of Malkovich’s scenes, are cast in dark and often intense shadow, especially noticeable in interiors lit by faint candlelight and backlit by streams beaming through windows and open doors. A healthy black level and warm amber tones counter the often chilly, colder and fluently blue-cast winter-set exteriors. Bloodied reds dominate too, for obvious reasons. Each timeline seems to have a subtlety different style, especially the dreamy summertime romance between Kolyma and Xenya which is lush with vibrant greens and warmer, watery blues, but the disc has consistently clean contrast, and little evidence of malicious manipulation. “Deadly Code” offers a pleasing presentation which up-converts rather well on smaller screens. It’s worth noting that although Lionsgate has decided to forgo a Blu-ray, the included UltraViolet digital copy redeems as 1080p HDX through the VUDU digital distribution service, and it looks fantastic.

Audio

“Deadly Code’s” English Dolby Digital 5.1 track renders every crunch of snow under foot, the occasional violent outburst—gun shot; punch—and clear if at-times heavily accented dialogue rather nicely, if not with the clarity or authority of a clean lossless offering. The film occasionally makes use of popular song to set time, including David Bowie’s “Absolute Beginners”, and the score by violinist and composer Mauro Pagani (his other works include Salvatores’ “Puerto Escondido” (1992) and “Nirvana” (1997)) mixes more traditional classicism—strings and piano—with modern electric guitar, blurring the lines between the two often conflicting styles not unlike Kolyma’s equally dissonant journey. LFE is sparingly employed to the deepest depths, and surrounds are relegated to music and some very subtle panning. The disc also includes English and Spanish subtitles.

Extras

Supplements include a featurette, theatrical trailer, and bonus trailers. An UltraViolet digital copy has also been included; in a pleasant surprise, the code redeems in high quality HDX format on VUDU.

“The Making of ‘Deadly Code’” (1.78:1, anamorphic widescreen; 6 minutes 38 seconds) is a perfunctory EPK featurette not even worth its brief 7 minute runtime. In English, Russian, and Italian, with English subtitles where necessary.

The theatrical trailer (1.85:1, anamorphic widescreen; 1 minute 37 seconds) for “Deadly Code” has also been included.

Pre-menu bonus trailers are for:

- “Red 2” (1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen; 1 minute 1 second).
- “The Last Stand” (1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen; 1 minute 40 seconds).
- “Rounders” (2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen; 2 minutes 9 second).
- "Epix HD" promo (2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen; 1 minute 34 seconds).

Packaging

Lionsgate Home Entertainment packages the DVD release of “Deadly Code” in a Viva eco-box keep case.

Overall

“Deadly Code” wan’t the film I was expecting. The screenplay stumbles through cliches in its muddled middle act, and the mix of local actors and Western talent has further muddied things, particularly accents which are kinda all over the place. But there are far fewer issues than I anticipated for a production that’s been re-titled and dumped direct-to-video in the US market. “Deadly Code” offers high quality production values, impressive cinematography and, yes, the always enjoyable Malkovich. The story isn’t too bad either, with an interesting twist on the friend-turned-foe conceit. The DVD release offers great standard definition video and satisfying audio, and in a nice surprise, the package also includes an UltraViolet digital copy redeemable in high definition.

The Film: B- Video: B+ Audio: B Extras: D Overall: B-

 


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