Director Aleksei Balabanov.
Cast: Dmitry Dyuzhev, Nikita Mikhalkov, Aleksey Panin, Sergey Makovetsky, Viktor Sukhorukov, Dmitry Pevtsov, Garik Sukachev, Tatyana Dogileva, Renata Litvinova, Viktor Bychkov, Aleksandr Bashirov, Grigory Syatvinda.
After a three-year hiatus and two unfinished projects Aleksei Balabanov has finally finished a new movie. Dead Man’s Bluff [Zhmurki], a film for those (as the tagline adds) who lived through the 1990s, premiered on 27 May 2005 in New York and opened one day later in Moscow. Its simplistic plot can be summed up easily: Mikhalych (played by Nikita Mikhalkov), a mafia don dressed in the iconic raspberry-colored sports coat (a hallmark of New Russian wealth in the mid-1990s), sends his two undependable trigger-happy lackeys, Sergei (Aleksei Panin) and Simon (Dmitrii Diuzhev), to exchange a suitcase of money for a suitcase of heroin. News of the suitcase spreads quickly among the various criminal groups and the narcotics are intercepted by three hacks. The remainder of the film focuses on Sergei and Simon’s search for and recovery of the drugs. As Koron, the leader of the thieving trio played by Sergei Makovetskii, explains to his two bumbling sidekicks immediately before they agree to the heist job: money is running out and they have no prospects. Their decision to take on the job is based on pure financial necessity. The result of their decision? A game of dead man’s bluff and, ultimately, death. One has to wonder whether Balabanov, perhaps, found himself in a comparable situation when embarking on this film.
The new phenomenon of box-office hits in Russia has led film critic Viktor Matizen to hypothesize the death of the director. He argues that the age of the director has given way to the age of the producer.  This shift marks the end to auteur filmmaking and the beginning of a film industry that values profit over all else. The genesis story of Dead Man’s Bluff supports Matizen’s thesis. According to Ekaterina Barabash’s article in Nezavisimaia gazeta, former soccer player Stas Mokhnachev wrote the screenplay as a bet. He then, on another bet, brought the screenplay to producer Sergei Sel'ianov. Sel'ianov turned the project over to Balabanov (not, as one might expect, vice versa), and the film was shot in the course of one and half months.
Certain aspects immediately reveal the film as typical of Balabanov, starting with the film’s production. Balabanov and Sel'ianov continue to maintain their almost decade-long partnership; like all of Balabanov’s films since Brother [Brat, 1997], the CTB studio produced Dead Man’s Bluff. Second, two of the director’s favorite actors play supporting roles —Viktor Sukhorukov, who has been cast in the majority of Balabanov’s films since Happy Days [Schastlivye dni, 1991], and Sergei Makovetskii, who joined Balabanov’s cast of favorites in 1998 when he played the lead role in Of Freaks and Men [Pro urodov i liudei].
The list of features atypical of Balabanov’s filmmaking is longer, however. For the first time, Balabanov is not the principle writer of his film’s screenplay. It is also his first time orchestrating a film with such a long list of famous actors, including Aleksei Panin, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Nikita Mikhalkov, Viktor Sukhorukov, Sergei Makovetskii, Andrei Panin, Iurii Stepanov, Kirill Pirogov, and Renata Litvinova. And, a third first: with Dead Man’s Bluff Balabanov makes his debut as a director of a comedy. The result is a film minimally reminiscent of Balabanov’s filmography.
Without any of his typical pretension or professed contempt for profitable filmmaking, Balabanov unapologetically labeled Dead Man’s Bluff a kassovyi, or commercial, criminal comedy during a press conference held at the Kinotavr Film Festival. This classification helps to explain the atypical star-studded cast: the film is a production prank. In other words, if the goal is to make a commercial comedy, then the film needs to have selling power. What better way to draw in the masses than to pack the movie with stars? Mikhalkov, who in years past criticized Balabanov, referring to him as a potentially dangerous director, now applauds him for his choice of actors. He observes that Balabanov makes no attempt in this film to introduce new actors. Instead, he correctly, in Mikhalkov’s opinion, invited famous actors to play small rolls and used them to comic effect.  Mikhalkov, who usually drips with saccharine pathos, gets big laughs for his comedic caricature of a provincial mafia boss. However, like many of the film’s characters (with the notable exception of the principle duo—Sergei and Simon), Mikhalkov has minimal on-screen time and virtually disappears in the second half of the film, returning in the film’s epilogue as the dethroned leader of the gang. Sukhorukov’s character is killed off too early to provide laughs to the end of the film and Makovetskii (also eventually killed off) gives one of his worst performances to date. The reliance on this group of well-known actors, the majority of whom have only brief cameo appearances, does not result in a well-acted film. ...