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LIFE AND DEATH IN THE FORMER U.S.S.R.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Daily News Film Critic

``A Friend of the Deceased'' has a premise that should be familiar to anyone who has seen a trailer for Warren Beatty's new movie, ``Bulworth.'' Both films center on despondent men who hire contract killers to do them in because they're too squeamish to do the job themselves. Of course, after taking out the contract, these guys find a new lease on life but - oops - have no way of reining in the hit man. Too bad these killers never wear pagers.

It's not a new gambit; in fact, it's been done often enough to make you wonder why the news - or at least, ``The Jerry Springer Show'' - isn't full of scenarios like this. Perhaps it's because dead men tell no tales, or maybe it's because the hit men carry out their work too professionally to discuss it, or maybe it's because it's the kind of ridiculous idea that can only work in a movie.

Interestingly enough, it does work, both in the brilliant, edgy political satire of ``Bulworth'' and here in ``A Friend of the Deceased,'' which deals in the personal politics of the former Soviet Union, a group of nations stuck uncomfortably between communism and capitalism. Unlike the more audacious ``Bulworth,'' the politics in ``Deceased'' are revealed entirely through character, personified in the film's fatalistic, amoral Ukrainian citizens.

Anatoli, the movie's protagonist, has certainly seen better days. He's a 35-year-old intellectual who doesn't know how to cope with the changes in the new Russia. He can't find a creative job and doesn't want to shed his identity as an intellectual by doing manual labor. So he sits by the phone, reading the newspaper and smoking cigarettes. Meanwhile, his wife is thriving at an advertising agency and threatening to leave him.

When she follows through with that threat and runs off with a co-worker, he turns to Dima, a black-market pal who had earlier offered to put him in touch with a hit man. But rather than put the hit on his wife's lover, Anatoli decides to kill himself, putting his picture in an envelope and slipping it into the killer's post-office box. Yes, Anatoli reasons, it may be suicide, but at least it will be a beautifully staged death.

Of course, things don't quite work out that way, and after a drunken night with perky prostitute Vika, things start looking up for Anatoli. He feels like he has cheated death. But it's too late to call off the hit - ``you can't stop these things once they start,'' Dima tells him - and Anatoli would rather die than admit to his friend that he put out the contract on himself. So he finds a second killer to ward off the first.

``A Friend of the Deceased'' has comic irony to spare, but it works on a deeper level as an illustration of how cultural shifts aren't always as black and white as they seem. Director Vyacheslav Krishtofovich depicts a Russian society that has replaced communism with coldness and solitude. ``There are no friendships, only business acquaintances,'' Dima complains to Anatoli. ``Friendships disappeared with our glorious Soviet past.''

It's not the kind of sentiment you expect to hear anyone saying in post-Soviet Russia, much less in a Ukrainian film. But Krishtofovich makes it ring true and makes you wonder about a nation of people trying to survive in a world that is suddenly open and new and, thus, foreign and frightening. Sure, these people don't want to go back to the old days of censorship and police control. But, as ``A Friend of the Deceased'' shows, that doesn't make it any easier to move forward and make a better day in the present.

THE FACTS

The film: ``A Friend of the Deceased'' (R; some nudity and language).

The stars: Alexandre Lazarev, Tatiana Krivitska and Eugen Pachin.

Behind the scenes: Directed by Vyacheslav Krishtofovich. Written by Andrei Kourkov. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: One hour, 40 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Landmark Samuel Goldwyn Cinemas, West Los Angeles; State Theatre, Pasadena.

Our rating: Three Stars.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:May 15, 1998
Words:683
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