“I want you to do something for me,” says a steely femme fatale (Ana Ularu) to the married American diamond merchant (Keanu Reeves) she’s been screwing for a couple of days after their chance encounter in the Russian hinterlands: “Fuck me, right now, like you fuck your wife.” The man agrees. They make love in the missionary position. The woman asks him to grunt his wife’s name when he orgasms, and he agrees to that, too. It’s a strange scene, and one that’s shot with all the erotic power of a David Caruso movie from the ’90s, but it’s one of the only times that Matthew Ross’ (“Frank & Lola”) torpid and dysfunctional new thriller actually focuses on the part of the story it should be telling.
The appropriately frigid “Siberia” hinges on a man named Lucas Hill (Reeves). And the thing about Lucas Hill is that he looks a lot like John Wick, if maybe a bit less stylish or self-assured. He also sounds a lot like John Wick, even though the words that come out of his mouth aren’t possessed with the same kind of warrior poetry. He even fights like John Wick — as often, if not quite as well. But Lucas Hill is not John Wick… because his name is Lucas Hill. And his wife is still alive. And he doesn’t appear to have a dog. Beyond that, the inch-deep characterizations of the script (by “A Simple Plan” writer Scott B. Smith) make it difficult to parse the differences.
The film begins with Lucas arriving in St. Petersburg to sell a $50-million bundle of rare blue diamonds, rolling into the shady hotel where everyone knows him by name, and the woman at the front desk seems to have at least one foot buried in the criminal underworld (just in case you couldn’t make those “John Wick” connections on your own). Lucas is supposed to get the stones from a colleague named Pyotr, but Pyotr has disappeared along with the merchandise, and the customer — a standard-issue Russian gangster type played by Pasha Lychnikoff — isn’t happy to hear that.
Lucas has to make things right, and fast, or he won’t be going home to his super boring wife (Molly Ringwald, wasted on a thankless cameo that could have been played by literally any living woman). Fortunately for our hero, he has semi-decent info that Pyotr might be hiding out in a hellish little factory town somewhere out in the hinterlands. These basic details are hashed out in needlessly convoluted fashion, setting the tone for a movie that obscures the information it doesn’t know how to sell; so far as “Siberia” is concerned, a thriller is just a violent drama where no one really knows what’s happening.
Things settle down a bit once Lucas arrives in the sticks, if only because it feels like he’s wandered into a different (and better) movie. Having a pint in the town’s only joint, he finds a couple of local bros harassing the bartender, and fatefully decides to intervene. Katya (Ularu) is the kind of hardscrabble, no-nonsense woman who can hold her own, but you know how it goes with American men: They’re always itching to act like cowboys. One drunken punch-up later, and Lucas finds himself being propositioned by the most eligible bachelorette for a few hundred miles in any direction. “You’re not a good man,” he says to himself before they first have sex, though it’s unclear if he means that as a realization or a reminder — Reeves’ hollow monotone has always invited a certain ambiguity, a fact that Ross is able to weaponize in his film’s most effective moments.
“Siberia” is at its best as a backwoods romance, even if its best is often hobbled by the kind of dialogue that only Keanu Reeves could deliver with a straight face (“Diamonds are unalterable,” Lucas says while naked with Katya and staring into her eyes. “I love them because they’re beautiful and rare and tough”). Smith’s script, for all its clumsy mishandling of the story’s criminal elements, is compellingly attuned to the strangeness of Katya’s situation. The forceful Romanian Ularu doesn’t have much to do beyond clench her jaw and moan whenever Reeves touches her, but it’s interesting to see the survival instincts her character has had to develop as the only girl in town, and how the protectiveness of the men around her has curdled into possessiveness over the years.
But really, “Siberia” is a story about a man in a sweet but passionless marriage who decides to burn it all down in a blaze of glory rather than wait for it to die of natural causes. The trouble is that nobody seems to know that. Even when the action slows down for an extremely ponderous exchange that conflates counterfeit diamonds with counterfeit love, Ross can’t make peace with the idea that his thriller is really a mid-life crisis movie in disguise — just like Lucas, the film is so terminally focused on finding some kind of excitement that it fails to do its job.
When its criminal plot does reignite in the third act, “Siberia” misunderstands the character’s fundamental desire by forcing him to reject the exact kind of seedy excitement that he’s secretly desperate to find. The result is a dull and deeply compromised movie that would rather be a mediocre crime saga than a nuanced character study, but can’t quite bring itself to commit to that choice.
“Siberia” will open in theaters and on VOD on Friday, July 13.
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