‘The Duelist” is both bloody action movie and period drama about Tsarist Russia, but not in equal measure. Touted as the third Russian movie to be released in Imax, it boasts opulent costumes, but the brilliant, large-screen format is in service of some pretty grisly business. No ball gown is beautiful enough to wipe away the memory of a 19th-century surgeon rooting around in someone’s shoulder for a lodged bullet.
That particular shoulder belongs to Yakovlev (Pyotr Fyodorov), a retired military officer. The fact that he makes nary a peep while a doctor fumbles with his artery tells you all you need to know about this stereotypical antihero: He’s handsome, brooding, intense and dangerous, which means he’s eventually going to bed some beautiful, virtuous woman who simply can’t help herself.
But first he has to shoot people.
Yakovlev is a duelist-for-hire, which is a surprisingly in-demand profession. Duels, though technically illegal, appear to be the only way that gentlemen settle even the most minor infractions.
Of course, no nobleman wants to risk death over a mishap in a buffet line, which is where Yakovlev comes in. Since he’s still breathing, he’s clearly good at his job, and he makes a pretty penny, too.
Things get interesting — then mind-numbingly convoluted — when it becomes evident that each of the men Yakovlev has recently killed has ties to the nefarious Count Beklemishev (Vladimir Mashkov), a smirking creep with a shadowy past who has designs on the pristine princess Martha Tuchkova, played by Yuliya Khlynina. Guess who she has eyes for?
There’s plenty of trite melodrama to go around, even before the story spins out of control with shipwreck flashbacks, a sob story about lost honor and a shaman who prophesies Yakovlev’s invincibility.
With its spectacular images and gory violence, “The Duelist” shares more than a little DNA with another recent Russian movie, “Stalingrad,” released here in 2014. That war drama, which also starred Fyodorov, did big business in Russia and China, but not in the United States. You don’t need a shaman to tell you that “The Duelist,” directed by Aleksey Mizgirev, will probably meet the same fate.
The movie is an incongruous mix, at least for American audiences. Most fans of costume drama don’t head to the movies expecting explosive exit wounds, and few action fans are going to be wowed by ostentatious lapels. “The Duelist” will leave viewers scratching their heads over any number of questions, but the most gnawing one might be: Why did everyone get so dressed up for a bloodbath?
R. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains violence, sex and nudity. In Russian and German with subtitles. 110 minutes.