The Duelist really hits the ground running. The time is 1860, and the location is St. Petersburg, where young nobleman, Yakovlev (Pyotr Fodorov) is a relentless and evidently professional duelist. Yakovlev has a fearsome reputation as a “death machine”, notwithstanding the fact that he claims to detest duelling. His opposite number is Count Graf Beklemishev (Vladimir Mashkov), an apparent cad whom we’re not supposed to like.
The main trouble here is that almost no-one is sufficiently well delineated to be likeable, and expressionless machismo is overdone to the point where many characters become virtually interchangeable. Also, the production is overly stylised, with some – fortunately not too many – ostentatious camera angles and effects. There’s more than a quorum of gruesomeness, with the violence extending beyond duelling to include bludgeoning, whipping, and the smashing of bones.
So much for the bad news. As the plot thickens, and we learn more about the mysterious Yakovlev’s family history and possible motivation, it becomes steadily stronger and more interesting. There are odd bits of tersely snappy dialogue (of the “Shooting isn’t difficult but killing is an exact science” variety), and occasional flashes of grim humour. The Duelist is, in essence, a swashbuckling, exciting and – inevitably, being set in the 19th century – old-fashioned tale. And the stirring orchestral soundtrack helps ratchet up the dramatic tension, which is already high thanks to the sheer frequency of the duels, and the even more “gut-tightening” Russian roulette sequences.
The colourful setting in imperial Russia pushes The Duelist over the line, making it a diverting adventure story.