If endless sequels, prequels, reboots, spin-offs, teamups, callbacks and shout-outs have put you off the idea of the “shared cinematic universe,” you haven’t been spending enough time in Karatas, world cinema’s smallest, wildest, weirdest crossover microcosm. The fictional village in rural Kazakhstan, populated exclusively by the clueless, the cowardly, the comic and the corrupt has provided a stark, absurdist backdrop for most of prolific Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s films, including his newest, the dark, funny, freaky “Assault.”
It may not be the most essential Yerzhanov entry — it’s not the darkest, funniest or freakiest — but “Assault” is a droll refresher on his singular sensibilities, and his borderline miraculous ability to maintain a coherent tone while narrative logic and consistency are highly expendable commodities. Good taste, too, can be as casually tossed out as one of the stuttered insults that make up about 80 percent of the dialogue. Here, the plot revolves around a school hostage situation that directly nods to real-life horrors such as Beslan and Kazan. But it is set at such an ironic remove from real life (often literally, in vast, snowy wides that reduce people to slip-sliding outlines like in a particularly bleak Bruegel) as to make the potential tragedy entirely abstract.
Yerzhanov characters have a fundamental inability to “not sweat the small stuff.” In fact they’re always so busily sweating the small stuff, that the big stuff can stroll right past them, wearing ghoulish masks and brandishing assault weapons, and they won’t notice. In this way, a small squad of gunmen infiltrate Karatas’ isolated secondary school one bone-chillingly icy morning, trooping past PE teacher Sopa (Berik Aitzhanov) and his slow-witted sidekick Turbo (Daniyar Alshinov), as Sopa shows off his inexpert nunchuck skills to some kids.
The squad walks calmly by the school principal (Teoman Khos), berating the drunken watchman Dalbych (Yerken Gubashev), and files purposefully past music teacher Max (Nurlan Batyrov), arguing over an exposed pipe with homophobic caretaker Jamjysh (Nurbek Mukushev). And they glide unnoticed by the glass windows of a classroom; when math teacher Tazshy (Azamat Nigmanov) finally does look up, it’s to lock eyes with his estranged wife Lena (Aleksandra Revenko) who is here to take custody of their son Daniyal (Timur Muratov), a student in Tazshy’s class.
Refusing her petition and locking Daniyal and the other kids in his classroom, Tazshy goes for an illicit smoke, which is when he hears gunfire, and makes a calamitously cowardly choice. He walks robotically out of the school and onto one of the waiting rescue buses, telling Sopa that he has got his students to safety when they, including his own child, are still locked in. Hours later, gathered with the other teachers — some of whom are also parents — in the office of the ineffectual police chief (Nurlan Smayilov), he finally confesses.
Tazshy must spend the rest of the film atoning for his unforgivable inaction. The frozen mountain pass means a SWAT team will take days to arrive, so Tazshy, suggesting the kids are in more imminent danger than he can know (one of those narrative glitches that proves how little Yerzhanov really cares about tight plotting), recruits the other adults into a petty, bickering, motley crew. Together, they embark on a simultaneously complex and hare-brained scheme to rescue the children. It’s as though “Assault on Precinct 13” were remade as a snow western starring the chastened Dad from “Force Majeure” and a backing band of drunks and charlatans. The scenes of them staggering about the frigid wasteland on a scale-model plan of the school scraped into the snow have exactly the long-shot lunacy that suggests.
But those scenes — like all of “Assault” — are also beautiful. Reteaming with his “A Dark Dark Man” and “The Gentle Indifference of the World” DP Aidar Sharipov, Yerzhanov’s eye for inventive choreography and striking compositions has never been sharper. He has to be among the foremost practitioners of the deadpan-pan, the skewed symmetry, the dry-witted interruption. And his cinephilia, while not as front-and-center as in his tragicomic lovers-on-the-run pic “Yellow Cat,” is in evidence too, not just in the films referenced, but in the genre conventions subverted. One confessional moment, during which the Dean-Martin-in-“Rio Bravo”-esque drunkard Dalbych sobs out his backstory and the others refuse to do the same, feels like a direct lampooning of all those campfire chats in cowboy movies, when terse action men share nighttime confidences before the big showdown.
But then, while some team members get a moment to shine, “Assault” does not really deal in comfy arcs of self-actualization. Despite its apparent poker-faced amorality, it is highly moral, and as an equal-opportunities exposé of the hypocritical machismo of Kazakh society, its heart is as dark as its humor. Welcome to Karatas: you might get out alive, but you won’t get out unscathed.