Thursday, March 23, 2017

Diamond Cartel: Life is Cheap in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan was the last republic to declare independence from the bad old Soviet Union. Since then, Communist era strongman Nursultan Nzarbayev has remained the nation’s unchallenged authoritarian ruler. Kazakhstan has remained a staunch ally of the Putin regime and factored prominently in international corruption inquiries (often focusing on the oligarchical petroleum industry). In short, it is perfect but strangely under-utilized setting for an international thriller. Kazakh filmmaker Salamat Mukhammed-Ali certainly knows the territory, but his execution is spotty. However, he still managed to assemble a cast for the ages in Diamond Cartel (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Strictly speaking, there is no diamond cartel in Mukhmmed-Ali’s film, but whatever. Hong Kong Triad boss Mr. Luo has agreed to sell the Star of the East diamond to Mussa, the flamboyant kingpin of the Kazakh underworld, but their core businesses are the traditional vices. Unfortunately for Mussa, the transaction is interrupted by a hit squad loyal to his rival, Khazar. The diamond and the suitcase full of cash will become a slippery Macguffin, changing hands multiple times.

For a good portion of the film, they will be in the possession of Aliya, a former dealer in Mussa’s casino, who opted for life as one of Khazar assassins when her previous boss tried to force her to become his concubine (to put it politely). Having recently been reunited with Ruslan, the na├»ve love of her life, Aliya decides to make a run for it with the guy and the loot. If they can make it out of Kazakhstan, they might be able to start a new life, but that will be a big “if,” judging from the in media res opening.

Cartel holds many distinctions, but it will probably get the most attention for being Peter O’Toole’s final film. The machine gun-wielding Tugboat is a pretty crazy note for him to go out on, but it is a real shame the film is so conspicuously dubbed, robbing us of his final arch line readings.

As if that were not enough, Cartel also features Armand Assante hamming it up as Mussa, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa playing it cool as Khazar, Michael Madsen quickly getting killed in the ill-fated diamond transaction, Bolo Yeung still looking fierce and totally cut as Mussa’s henchman Bulo, and Don “The Dragon” Wilson keeping it real as Mr. Luo. The parade of cult-action stars is nostalgic fun, but the bulk of the film is carried by Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova and Alexey Frandetti as Aliya and Ruslan. She could be a reasonably intense and seductive femme fatale/action figure in a different context, but he is essentially a wall flower carried along for the ride. Fortunately, Assante also gets a whole lot of screen time, because who is going to stop him—and why would they want to?

The Kazakhstan backdrops are genuinely striking, often in an ominously cinematic way. Obviously, there are a lot of action chops assembled here, notably including Murat Bissenbin as Aliya’s assassination instructor, but the fight scenes and shootouts are mostly just okay and the flashbacks to Aliyan and Ruslan as children are a grave mistake. Some of us will want to see Diamond Cartel just so we can say with certainty that it exists, but it is a rocky road—even if it is one of the priciest Kazakh domestic productions—reportedly costing something in the high six-figure neighborhood, mind you. It is what it is and it opens tomorrow (3/24) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinema.