It’s hard to know what to make of Sasha (Artyom Tkachenko), the thin, dour, charismatic central figure of this Russian film. Is he a misunderstood messiah, a genetic mutation, a serial-killing monster with supernatural powers, or an abused kid who becomes a murderous super-being only to be redeemed by a tragic love? Or all of the above? Intentionally or not, director Filipp Yankovsky’s film, from a novel by Yevgeni Danilenko, relates to Marvel Comics’ X-Men franchise (especially the antiheroic aspects of Wolverine) in the way Unbreakable does to DC’ Superman. In times of crisis, Sasha can extrude a lethal, supernaturally sharp blade from his wrist – which always causes him physical pain and further psychological trauma since this gift has not only wrecked his life but can’t be done away with (attempts to hack off his own hand or get it severed on a streetcar line don’t work). At first, it appears this weapon (which the film is coy about showing often) is just a regular-sized dagger, but the climax reveals that it is an infinitely-extensible weapon suitable for felling multiple trees in a single pass and slicing off the tail of a helicopter.
The story is told in flashback, beginning with glum cop Nikolai Roschin (Leonid Gromov) at the site of a fresh sword incident, though it takes a while to sink in that we’re seeing events out of chronological order. Sascha, who is still close to his mother, had a troubled childhood – expelled from school after cutting classmates’ possessions, then instinctively killing a stepfather who was abusing the mother – and has become a haunted wanderer. Returning to his home town, he sees a girl he knows (Angela Mirimskaya) in the street and is beaten up by her arrogant gangster boyfriend and his chauffeur simply for being friendly with her. Later, Sascha attacks them in return, not using his abilities, and wrecks the smug hood’s face, prompting his crime figure mother (Tatyana Lyutayeva) to assign her grim enforcer Klim (Aleksei Gorbunov) to track him down. Sascha’s current mission is to trace his genetic father, who is ambiguously moved at his long-lost son’s appearance but gutted when he embraces the young man. Sascha steals a stash of cash from his father’s fridge (everyone in this film is involved in Russian organised crime, including most of the cops – suggesting a backdrop of enormous societal corruption) and heads off, getting caught then escaping from Klim.
In a development that’s hard to take at face value, Sascha literally trips up a pretty girl, Katya (Chulpan Khametova), and they fall into erotic thriller sex which leads to a deep love. Besides the sword, Sascha has a golden glow (seen in the odd, beautiful long-shot which shows houses or vehicles he’s in shining) which we might take as another power capable of fascinating women. Katya’s smart-suited boyfriend turns up in her apartment to find the lovers entwined – for an instant, we sympathise with the cuckold, but he pulls a stashed gun and is revealed as yet another Russian mafia type, and Sascha has to use his sword on a bulky bodyguard and this creep to save the girl. After an interrogation by Roschin, who has found evidence of the sword and keeps asking what weapon he has been using, Sashca is jailed. Klim arranges for the new fish to be brutally beaten and the guards cheerfully play dominoes as he is tossed into a cell with a scarred rapist called ‘the Boar’ and his gang of thugs. Of course, there’s an offscreen massacre which only Sascha survives, and Roschin has another frustrating interview about the blade no one can find and events no one could imagine. To put pressure on Sascha, Katya has been placed in a ‘mental hospital’ and dosed with drugs (she’s told her needle-marks are mosquito bites), and Sascha finally commits to heroism to bust her out (cutting Klim in half to prove a point). Roschin is still on his case and, after catching up where we came in, a pursuit in the woods, with Katya perhaps mortally wounded, leads to a final outburst of power.
By not saying anything about how Sascha got his sword, or even clarifying what happens when he tries to cut off his hand, the film leaves the question of whether the supernatural or superscience is behind his situation. As in Unbreakable, Sascha is equipped with all the attributes of being a superhero – he even seems to have a protective bubble which enables those near him to survive a car crash – but cruelly adrift in a world which has no place for such beings. Unlike Bruce Willis’s David Dunn, Sascha is so badly-treated that he reacts by becoming almost monstrous – we realise in retrospect that he tries to hold back, and initially takes beatings from folks he could easily kill out of hand (leaving Klim alive, for instance), but the more harm done to him, the more he overreacts to protect himself and those he loves. Tkachenko, who gives off a Jim Caviezel vibe, is simultaneously ratlike and handsome, and believable as the dangerous, hard-to-like character who nevertheless proves himself. Khametova has a harder time of it as a ‘normal’ character who makes an inexplicable instant connection – I was convinced Sascha was exerting mind control powers on Katya, but later developments suggest their sudden, deep romance is genuine – and then gets dragged into a weird world. Yankovsky directs imaginatively, staging bursts of dazzling, sometimes mystifying action (and flashes of splatter), but also sequences of ominous calm and eerie beauty.