Dead Man's Bluff

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Dead Man's Bluff
Russian DVD cover
Directed by Aleksei Balabanov
Produced by Sergei Dolgoshein
Sergei Selyanov
Written by Aleksei Balabanov
Stas Mokhnachev
Starring Nikita Mikhalkov
Aleksei Serebryakov
Dmitri Dyuzhev
Aleksei Panin
Music by Vyacheslav Butusov
Cinematography Yevgeni Privin
Edited by Tatyana Kuzmichyova
Distributed by STV Cinema Company
Release date
May 24, 2005
Running time
105 min.
Country Russia
Language Russian

Dead Man's Bluff, or Zhmurki (Russian: Жмурки) is a 2005 Russian black comedy/crime film.

Director Aleksei Balabanov, who directed Brother and Brother 2, uses "uniformly ace" (Variety) cameo performances, by Russia's most prominent actors. The film suggests that in the mean free-market streets of Russia in the beginning of 90-s, the only real liberty was the freedom to kill.

Approximately 50 liters of fake blood were used in the film. With the exception of a few scenes in Moscow, the film was shot in Tver, the city formerly known as Kalinin, and Nizhny Novgorod, the city known as Gorky in Soviet times.

The stars of the film include famous Russian actors such as Nikita Mikhalkov (best known to American audiences for his work in Burnt by the Sun), Aleksei Serebryakov, Dmitri Dyuzhev, Aleksei Panin, Sergei Makovetsky, Igor Sukachev, Viktor Sukhorukov, and Renata Litvinova. Actually, there are more than 20 Russian-movie stars in the film, but it's not easy to recognize them immediately since they are all in disguise.

The film features an eclectic collection of Russia's biggest movie stars while the choice for music was simply a mix of Russia's local punk act.

This film is a first attempt at a comedic movie by Balabanov. The movie serves as a dark humor farce on typical gangster movies that were prevalent within Russian society around 1990. The movie received mixed reviews, with some critics writing disparaging reviews stating that the plot left much to be desired and most of the jokes fell flat, while others argued that the movie was a successful attempt by Balabanov to add a new movie genre to his repertoire.


The film opens with a professor lecturing a group of university students. The professor says: "Start-up capital is how everything begins - it makes it possible to start a business and multiply the initial investment many times over. The key question is how to get start-up capital..." By way of example, she begins to tell a story that supposedly took place a decade earlier during the socioeconomic tumult in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The movie then cuts to an interrogation scene that takes place in a morgue. The torturer continuously asks the gagged prisoner to talk, but it is unclear what the torturer desires to know. Before the torturer can kill the prisoner, three masked men enter and threaten the torturer at gunpoint. A gunfight ensues and one of the masked men is killed as well as the prisoner and the torturer has been shot in the stomach. One of the masked men takes of his disguise and it is revealed that he is a police officer named Stefan. The following events make it clear that he is a crooked officer. He asks the torturer what information Mikhailovich wanted from the prisoner and when the torturer gives no reply, Stepan shoots the man in the head and then shoots his own partner. The officer takes a piece of paper from the torturers pocket and seems excited by what he reads on it.

The movie then introduces the audience to three new gangsters who seem far less experienced than Simon and Sergei. Standing around and smoking cigarettes, the trio exchange banter that caters mainly to a Russian audience. The two Russian looking men in this group, Koron and Bala, consistently make their black partner, Baklazhan, the butt of their jokes. Even though he was born in Russia, the other two refuse to accept he is a Russian and insist on calling him the Ethiopian. The trio get a phone call from the Stepan who offers them work. They decide to meet at the zoo tomorrow to discuss the job.

The movie flashes to Nizhniy Novgorod in the mid-1990s. Simon and Sergei are two young hoodlums working for Sergei Mikhailovich, a local mob boss. Sergei Mikhailovich wears a magenta sports coat and uses a cell phone with an extendable antenna, a symbol of prosperity at that time. Upon learning that a chemist nicknamed "Doctor" has established a makeshift drug lab in the neighborhood, Sergei Mikhailovich sends Simon and Sergei to persuade Doctor to start paying him protection money. Sergei appears to be the smarter of the two hoods, doing all the talking. Simon is more taciturn: a ruthless killer with spring-loaded guns hidden in the wide sleeves of his trench coat. After Sergei explains why they are there, Doctor scoffs at them and before they can do anything, two of Doctor's associates appear. In the ensuing shoot-out, Sergei and Simon kill both the Doctor and his associates.

Sergei Mikhailovich is angry that the two hoods killed Doctor, because Mikhailovich stated that he needs Doctor for unknown purposes, but decides to give the duo another chance to make good. He tells Sergei and Simon to drive to the house of an attorney and exchange a suitcase full of money for a suitcase full of heroin. The two drive to a bar restaurant to relax and discuss the job. Unknown to the duo, a crooked cop named Stepan knows about the deal that is supposed to go down with the attorney. He hires Koron and his two associates, Bala and Baklazhan to intercept Sergei and Simon. The gangsters, wearing masks, hold up Sergei and Simon and take the suitcase from them at gunpoint, thinking that the suitcase is full of money. As they later learn, the switch had already happened and the suitcase is full of heroin.

When Sergei and Simon tell Sergei Mikhailovich what happened, he orders them to find Stepan, discover where the drugs were taken, and then kill him. The duo drive to Stepan's apartment, bind him, and begin to brutally torture him. Before long, Stepan tells them where to find the three gangsters who held them up. After that, Simon kills Stepan.

Using the information extracted from Stepan, Sergei and Simon drive to Koron's apartment, but find that Baklazhan is the only person there. Koron had left earlier to try to find Stepan, while Bala stepped out to buy some cigarettes. Sergei and Simon overpower and tie up Baklazhan. He swears that he has no idea who they are or what they are talking about. Sergei begins to search the apartment for the heroin. In the process, he finds a bag filled with guns and masks in the closet, proving that Baklazhan is lying to them.

Soon, a group of gangsters led by a criminal named Mozg (The Brain) show up at the apartment. They were a second group that Stepan had tried to use to hold up Sergei and Simon. The duo shoot all of them except for Mozg. He begins to threaten them. Sergei kills him with a sudden shot to the temple. Soon after, Koron and Bala return to the apartment. Sergei and Simon tie them up and, under threat of torture, Koron gives up the location of the heroin - it was hidden in the oven.

Sergei forces Koron and the two members of his gang to play Russian Roulette with him, which he calls "Zhmurki" (thus, the title of the film). Throughout the entire film, Sergei is seen carrying around a leather folder. In the course of the game, each time Sergei has to shoot at his own temple, he puts the folder between himself and the gun, suggesting that it is for luck. Both Koron and Bala end up killing themselves during the Russian Roulette. Sergei and Simon go to the back room to check on Baklazhan, but he has freed himself from the ropes and gotten a hold of a gun. He shoots Sergei and wounds him in the stomach. Simon quickly reacts and kills Baklazhan.

The following series of events is an excellent example of black humor within this film. As Sergei lays bleeding on the couch approaching death, Simon is lazily and slowly searching through his phonebook and eventually calls a friend who is a medical student. The friend, clad in punk attire and a colored mohawk, comes over and, after spending an ample amount of time chatting with Simon, takes a hit of cocaine, and pulls out a medical textbook. As his operation begins, it is clear that he has never done this sort of procedure before as he is forced to use the textbook as a guide. While his friend is operating, Simon opens Sergei's leather folder and discovers a thick metal plate inside. He realizes that Sergei was never playing Russian Roulette for real.

After the bloodbath at Koron's apartment, Sergei and Simon decide that they could get better work in the center of Moscow and there was little upside to continuing to work for Sergei Mikhailovich. Deciding to act on an offer from a former colleague from earlier in the movie, Simon and Sergei get out of town taking the heroin with them using it as their "start-up capital".

The film then flashes forward to 2005. The film ends ironically as instead of continuing their lives as thugs like the audience expected, Sergei and Simon have become respected members of the Russian Parliament, or Duma. The duo own a securities trading firm. Sergei Mikhalovich, their old mob boss, now works for them as a security guard.


  • Florian Weinhold (2013), Path of Blood: The Post-Soviet Gangster, His Mistress and Their Others in Aleksei Balabanov's Genre Films, Reaverlands Books: North Charleston, SC: pp. 115–138.


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