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Tycoon

New Money

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Pavel Lounguine's Tycoon begins in the crumbling Soviet Union of the late 1980s and revolves around the titular Platon Makovski, who jumps on the bullet train of his country's emerging free-market economy and, over the course of 15 years, rides it to success, corruption and assassination (we witness his death right at the start, before learning the story of his life).

Lounguine paces and structures Tycoon like the urban noir crime dramas and gangster films invented by Hollywood and taken up by the French, and his complicated story feels somewhat like a TV mini-series. But if his tone is ultimately one of cool commercial melodrama, his subject matter is sufficiently Russian: an inside look, based on a true story, at a country changing its economic paradigm with a sudden burst of freedom.

"Stop robbing the masses!" a woman shouts, in the opening of Tycoon, outside of Infocar, Platon's successful company, which creates a tabloid television network to rocket a pliable politician to the Russian presidency, and whose name hovers in English above its high-rise Moscow headquarters. Platon's reply to the swarm of media and police around him: "My only crime is being a free man." Soon, he's dead, the victim of anti-tank missiles fired at his car. The police have three categories of suspects: the business world, the underworld, or Platon's old friends.

As a hard-boiled, no-neck detective investigates the murder, Lounguine flashes back to chronicle Platon's emergence and success. He persuades his college pals to go for the gold along with him, and when brainy Viktor gets into trouble, trying to convince some churlish middle-aged Soviet comrades that command economies don't work ("it's mathematics, not ideology"), Platon (Vladimir Mashkov) interrupts his bouncy tryst to dazzle the room with a loopy metaphor about a crocodile. He then has to circumvent both the law and other criminals to succeed, with the steely, silver-haired, caviar-stuffed Ahmed the Uzbek providing muscle along the way.

It's immediately clear that Platon -- part Michael Corleone, part Scarface -- is the charismatic New Russian whose cautionary tale, and the morals that go with it, Lounguine wants to explore. Platon, says the embittered widow of Viktor, who commits suicide, was a pied piper in "an age of rat charmers." And then, in a striking moment of Russian cinema, which for so long could only talk about dead former leaders, she names the still-breathing Gorbachev and Yeltsin among them.

In 1990, Lounguine made a small breakthrough in Russian cinema with his dark and vivid streetlife drama Taxi Blues. His pace quickens in Tycoon -- it's busy with movement and stuffed with location scenery -- although a bluesy saxophone still underscores the action with melancholy. And while Americans might not follow every cultural reference in the movie, it's still a great dramatic primer on Russian life of the past decade and the international market value of free enterprise. In Russian, with subtitles.

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