At first glance, nothing seemed to say "wild world of cinema" more than an action-packed Russian movie about a boxer feuding with the Mexican mafia, but Anton Megerdichev's movie, a Weinstein Company DVD release in America, is both more and less than meets the eye. For starters, "Revenge" proves to be a sequel to an earlier "Shadow Boxing" movie that may not be available as an American disc. But even without a recap of the previous film, it's fairly easy to figure out what's been happening. Our hero is Artem Kolchin (Dennis Nikiforov), an aspiring fighter in a middling weight class. His path to a title fight with an American champion took a detour that sent him to jail. The detour involved a powerful gangster who also ended up in prison. The sequel (which is subtitled "Revenge" in the original Russian) shows Artem a free man with his wife, presumably retired from boxing until his old manager comes up with a deal that will finally land him that title shot. Artem goes to America to train and shakes his ring rust quite fast. He wins his first comeback fight by a one-punch knockout. That makes him the hero of the gym, except in the eyes of Cesar, a Mexican kid with a big chip on his shoulder and a desire to be the alpha dog. Their rivalry finally explodes when a sparring match gets out of control and Artem accidentally beats Cesar to death.
Cesar's dad is Felix Mendez, a bigtime gangster who demands the same revenge the title does. After he sends a hitman into Artem's rented home, our hero decides to flee the country, but he and his wife take separate flights. He makes it back to Russia, but she doesn't. Now she'll be killed if Artem doesn't return and submit himself to Mendez's vengeance. Somehow, word of all this has reached the gangster from the first film in his cell in the city of Vladimir. Since Mendez has ties to Russian organized crime, a tough cop (also from the first film?) negotiates a scenario in which the gangster will leave prison, take out Mendez and help Artem rescue his wife. Fearing a double-cross by the cops, the gangster soon violently shakes his police tail. When he and Artem reach America, the gangster promptly delivers Artem to Mendez. But Artem's friends in the States have a hidden ace: the gangster has a son here whom the good guys take hostage, demanding Artem and his wife in exchange. While the intrigues between the Mexican and Russian crimelords play themselves out, Artem has to get back in shape fast to make his title fight date....
I'm not sure what I was expecting that would give this film a distinctly Russian flavor, but I finished it thinking it could have been made practically anywhere. It's filmed in a kind of generic global style that's heavy on needless flashbacks and flashy camera tricks. Megerdichev tries every trick in the book to make his fights visually interesting; the results are inevitably hit-or-miss, but in the climactic title bout especially he does succeed in dramatizing boxing in some fresh ways. To his credit, he doesn't stage Rocky fights in which every punch is a haymaker; his fighters duck and block and make each other miss, and even clinch at times. He films at variable speeds and freeze-frames occasionally to highlight near-misses and decisive blows. He shakes the camera and blurs the image and throws in disorienting montages to portray Artem's punchy perspective at crisis moments. The director's most successful gambit comes just as Artem is making his big comeback. The champ is still getting in some heavy shots, and after one solid hit to Artem's head the screen goes black -- and stays black for tense seconds before fading back in to as Artem shakes off the effects of a powerful blow. Megerdichev also doesn't overdo the comeback; the champ remains a formidible opponent throughout, defying our expectations by getting up not once, but twice after potential knockout blows from our hero. He takes the best Artem dishes out, and that keeps the fight suspenseful until a clever anticlimax. Once the champ gets up that second time, you're most likely asking yourself whether Artem has got anything left to put him down with, and you may be thinking he can still lose -- but then the bell rings to end the fight. That leaves us with a different kind of anticlimax: a split decision.
"Shadow Boxing 2," as it's known in some territories, disappointed me as an action movie -- Artem does too much running and not enough ass-kicking for my taste -- but it ends up an interesting experiment in post-Raging Bull boxing expressionism. If there'd been more boxing in it, I'd be willing to call it at least a halfway-decent fight film. As it is, it's a muddled, overlong, sometimes overstylized affair that might still be of interest to fight-film fans and anyone curious about Russian cinema outside the art houses.
This Russian trailer was uploaded to YouTube by sjada22: