Film - Siberia

Steve Taylor-Bryant comes in from the cold as he reviews the latest thriller from Keanu Reeves with Siberia...

I am annoyed. It’s not strange for me to be annoyed after watching a film, but on this occasion it’s not really the film's fault, it’s the marketing people. Marketing is a hard job and I normally have the utmost respect for these particular departments within the film industry, for example without a marketing team for Siberia I wouldn’t have had advance access to the screener for review, but on this occasion they have got it so terribly wrong that a lot of people are going to leave the cinema disappointed and wrongly blame the film for their lack of enjoyment. The press release for Keanu Reeves' new film read like this…

John Wick meets John Le Carre with Keanu Reeves as a gun-toting diamond dealer going up against the Russian mob, in this chilly, action-packed thriller.

The problem is Siberia is nowhere near a Le Carre film, gun-toting is as massive an overstatement as I have ever read, and Siberia is hardly action-packed. None of these faults in the marketing are the fault of the film because Siberia is a very good film. It has the slow edge of a spy thriller from back in the day, probably where they got the Le Carre thing from, and its very slow paced until at least the half way point. Keanu’s character of Lucas Hill is an American diamond trader who has set up a deal with his Russian counterpart Pyotr to sell some very valuable diamonds to Boris Volkov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff) who happens to be in the Russian mafia. When Lucas arrives in St. Petersburg he finds Pyotr has gone missing, along with the diamonds, which leaves Lucas owing the Russian mob diamonds he doesn’t have in his possession. Lucas manages to get a few days grace from Boris and travels to Siberia looking for Pyotr, who has a brother in the region. Whilst trying to find Pyotr, Lucas meets and falls in love with café owner Katya (Ana Ularu) much to her own brothers’ disappointment.

To continue would be to add too many spoilers than I am comfortable with, but for the majority of Siberia, I was watching a highly enjoyable movie. It really is slow to start, something I find more and more refreshing these days and, in Lucas Hill, Keanu has finally found a character where his introverted and quiet acting manner are to his benefit. Keanu’s character Lucas goes through the emotional mill so there is a lot of the film where he has to think rather than communicate out loud which suits Keanu perfectly and Reeves seems to relish the role. His on-screen chemistry with Ana Ulara is fine and the first maybe two thirds of the film is like a modern, but very cold, retelling of a classic love story. Think Romeo and Juliet if they were diamond traders trying to work with the mafia in minus forty weather if you will. It's this love story that takes centre stage, the trust and distrust, the clash of ideals and cultures, the attempt to impress the family, including a scene with a bear which is the most brutal scene of the film.

Outside of the main two characters struggles to love each other, the rest of the plot doesn’t really matter, until the very end of the film, and it’s the performances of Reeves and Ularu that rightly take centre stage and both impress. The casting of the brothers is okay, I quite liked Dmitry Chepovetsky’s portrayal of Ivan as he goes from being unsure of Lucas to being his confidant and friend. Director Matthew Ross has done a pretty good job with Scott B. Smith and Stephen Hamel’s story which in some places is a bit lacking in finesse and in others doesn’t really know what it wants to be. My only real issue with the writing is the addition of far too many sex scenes, seriously I am not a prude, but no film requires this many bedroom related incidents, and there is a scene towards the end with Boris in which he requests a weird oral sex pact with Lucas which lost me. He went from Russian Gangster, made to be feared, to strange little fetish man that just disgusts rather than frightens, and it made Pasha D. Lychnikoff more pantomime villain and less great onscreen bad guy, which was a real shame as there had been some tense moments of real menace up to that point.

The weird sex obsession aside, Ross delivers a film that really spoke to my sensibilities and what I adore in cinematic experiences. There were real characters to root for, there was a sense of realism in the love struggles it wasn’t just a plot point, and when there was a small amount of action is was, as you would expect from Reeves nowadays, very impressive, more so due to there being such a lack of anything resembling gun-toting up to that point. Siberia wont be for everyone, the John Wick fanatics expecting an ass-kicking Keanu film will probably walk out before the end and start some kind of online trolling campaign, those that don’t like subtitles are going to be disappointed that about a third of the dialogue is in Russian although it really didn’t bother me, it was actually quite nice that a film set in Russia used the countries mother tongue instead of always reverting to English, and those that prefer their gangsters with less oral sex fetishes and more weapons will feel slightly aggrieved as well. I did however really enjoy Siberia. It was beautifully shot with the Winnipeg landscape making an ample replacement for the Russian wilderness, and Keanu was highly watchable. The basic plot was solid, and the love story was fascinating and played convincingly by Reeves and Ularu, and with a couple of tweaks to the writing and slightly less sexual content the film could have been quite stunning.

Worth a watch for Reeves and to see how he works, doing so much with a character without any visible effort, and for Ana Ularu who I wasn’t that familiar with but very impressed by. Its worth a watch for the scenery, for the bear scene, and for the ‘Oh my word that’s Molly Ringwald!’ moment. I just wish a little more care had been taken on the page to keep Boris as a man to be feared. But that marketing tagline still annoyed me so I've changed it for you. You're welcome...

"This is not John Wick in Russia. This is not action packed. If you don’t like slow burn character films then this is not for you. The last five minutes are probably as close to the original marketing statement as you’ll get. THERE IS A BEAR."

Image - Signature Entertainment.

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