“Dude,” as I was addressed by a handful of people, “did you see that new Russian superhero movie, yet?”
I hadn’t. “What’s it called?”
“Mechano-something. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s awesome! The camera is all over the place and the effects are great.”
This was relayed to me a number of times over a period of about ten days. The description always vague and usually leaving me with less information than I had going in. Finally, one of these good Samaritan dudes (and one dudette) included an IMDb link to a movie called The Sword Bearer, aka, in Russia, Mechenosets. Based on writer Yevgeni Danilenko's book, directed in 2006 by Filipp Yankovsky, The Sword Bearer turned out to be something different from what was described. I suspect that these well-intentioned friends were trying to steer me towards the flying-car movie Black Lightning, produced by Timur Bekmambetov, or maybe even Bekmambetov’s Daywatch, because what I got with The Sword Bearer was not a slam-bang actioner, but a very quiet and occassionally disturbing story about a young man who has been ostracized by society for a unique flaw in his genetic make-up.
Unfolding slowly and deliberately, we are gradually introduced to Sasha (a remarkable Artyom Tkachenko), a withdrawn little boy who grows up to be an isolated teenager, shunned by many who know him because of his temper and the violence that results from it. When Sasha feels threatened, a gleaming, indestructable metal blade extends from his wrist. With it, he can cleave stone and wood as easily as flesh and bone, and he doesn’t seem to have the ability to control it, or even set it on “mild injury” much less “stun”. However, he doesn’t pop the blade like Wolverine; the sword bursts painfully through his skin, sometimes skewering the palm of his hand, leaving behind a bloody appendage he does his best to hide with bandages.
Returning to his childhood neighborhood after an unexplained absence, the adult Sasha happens across a girl he knew from school. Her mobster’s son boyfriend and his droogs arrive and beat the young man down in the street, then drive off in their flashy Yay-Capitialism sports car. Tracking them back to her home, Sasha uses a rusty pipe to destroy the car with the bullies inside, killing or severely injuring each one. Shocked by his violence, the girl withdraws and Sasha runs. The next morning, the boyfriend’s connected mother puts a price on Sasha’s head.
In a new city, he meets a woman about his age, Katya (Chulpan Khamatova). They bicker in a stairway then fall into each others’ arms, anger fueling passion. Then her lover arrives home. Instead of offering any explanation, Katya orders the man out of the house. When he attempts to shoot her, Sasha breaks a chair over his head and they leave him tied up. Once freed and out for revenge, he attempts to rape her in the back seat of her car. Sasha’s rescue of her is brutal and horrifying, even to himself. Slamming the would-be rapist overhand into the car’s windshield, Sasha straddles him. Without his bidding, the blade extends and leaves the man bloody and dead, half in and out of the car. Shocked and shamed, Sasha runs and the girl comes up behind him, watching him press the blade tip into the pavement to force it back into his body.
The brutality and revelation is too much for her and she collapses. Sasha takes her home and she wakes up terrified of him. He hands her the phone, tells her to call the police, but she can’t.
It’s at this very point that you realize that this will not, cannot end well for either of them. This is a movie borne of a tragedy with all the classic tropes—misunderstood hero, doomed lovers, society mistaking iconoclasts for the mentally ill, the disease of revenge—all distilled into an odd little metaphor that is rarely even visual. The blade represents Sasha’s isolation, his barely-controlable rage; the bloody path left behind him are predominantly accidents—just as the first time, as a child, when he defended his mother by murdering his stepfather; when he protected a schoolmate from an escaped prisoner. First we see the wooden sword in young Sasha’s hand, then the bloody corpse on the floor.
Restrained and disciplined, Yankovsky never allows The Sword Bearer to dab even a toe into X-Men territory. Preferring to show the aftermath of Sasha’s emotions, at no point does the director attempt to ape western testosterone set pieces. We never see, for example, Sasha racing down a hall, blade extended, mowing down assailants. (The best we gorehounds get is a shot at the rear of a police van, a cascade of blood spilling through open doors and around Sasha’s boots, once belonging inside the half-dozen men escorting him to prison.) He’s not a superhero; the blade isn’t a curse. It’s just a part of him he doesn’t understand. He can’t even extend it at will, to prove his story to a policeman who is eager to hear any rational explanation. When it does emerge, he can cross-cut forests, cleave tractor trailers in half. Even then, Yankovsky keeps the blade obscured by action, more a force than a weapon. When we watch Sasha slice off the tail of a helicopter, we realize that the blade’s length is as infinite as his rage and grief, and many more times powerful.
Going into the film blind, The Sword Bearer became for me a very pleasant surprise, but one that demanded my attention (and not just because all the subtitles were about a full-second off, making following the subdued story even more difficult). Not everything is explained but then not every detail is necessary. All we have to no that a very special man is in love with a very special woman, that they’re both damaged in their own way, and that the world is a cold, hard place that has no interest in understanding them. It’s a very simple story wrapped up in an atypical narrative.
Depending on your own tolerance for deliberately-paced movies (what some may call “boring” and not unjustified), you’ll either find The Sword Bearer remarkable or intolerable. And for this reason, in addition to the subtitles and the presence of actors who may be acclaimed in Russia but are virtually unknown here (until they’re hired to play thuggish villains for the next Jason Statham movie), Mechenosets did not receive a wide release in the U.S. It played festivals in the big cities but was not released on domestic DVD. But even abroad, the pacing and open-ended questions, primarily concerning Sasha’s origins and any explanation of the blade, have left many viewers frustrated.
It’s at this point in the review when I suppose I should ask, pretentiously, if subtlety and allegory have been completely bred out of our DNA, regardless of location. Because I found meaning and satisfaction instead of explanation doesn’t raise me above or place me below another viewer. The Sword Bearer is a story about a scream told in a whisper. Whether you dig it or not will depend on how loudly you want to hear a story like this and when you’re willing to hear it.