TYCOON — ** — Vladimir Mashkov, Mariya Mironova, Levani Outchaneichvili; in Russian, with English subtitles; not rated, probable R (violence, profanity, sex, nudity, vulgarity, gore).

Many U.S. audiences would need a refresher course in Soviet economic theory and politics just to make heads or tails of the thriller "Tycoon."

That's not a complete surprise, considering the film was produced in Russia and assumes that knowledge of such things is a given. However, the fact that "Tycoon" is somewhat impenetrable for moviegoers outside its home country is just one of its numerous problems.

In some ways, the movie may bring to mind John Boorman's superior 1998 thriller "The General," which at least had the sense to not overuse the flashback storytelling technique. But "Tycoon" flashes back and forth in time so often that it becomes confusing and more than a little tiresome.

The title refers to Plato Makovski (Vladimir Mashkov), an enterprising capitalist who takes advantage of the many business opportunities to be had in the former Soviet Union, circa the mid-'80s. And he's not the only one. All of his former university buddies have also prospered, joining the ranks of the so-called oligarchs (Russian mobsters) who rule the country thanks to their economic clout.

However, petty jealousies and bickering turn this once-loyal group of friends into enemies, which comes to a head when at least one of them tries to take out Plato.

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But the gimmicky storytelling undoes the film, as the film works its way backward, using the attempt to kill Plato as a starting point. The filmmakers would have been better off with a more direct, linear story line that might have allowed for some real character development (if not a helpful recap of recent Russian history).

Even the cast seems hampered by all the changes in time periods; Mashkov never seems certain how old he's supposed to be. The strongest performance comes from Mariya Mironova, as Plato's lover.

"Tycoon" is not rated but would probably receive an R for violence (shootings and explosive mayhem), occasional use of strong sexual profanity and crude sexual slang terms, scenes of simulated sex, full female nudity, and gore. Running time: 123 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com