Dir. Aleksei Balabanov. Russia 2002. 120mins.
The takeover of a Moscow theatre by Chechen rebels last year, and that incident's bloody outcome, can only emphasise the impact of Alekesi Balabanov's War. The gang wars of Balabanov's previous action-packed hits Brat and Brat 2 are replaced here by real conflict, between Russia and Chechnya, but his jaundiced, acerbic approach to human nature remains the same. Politically incorrect to a fault, his attitude will raise many a liberal brow, although it may find supporters, as the borders between authentic national uprisings and freelance, multi-national terrorism become more blurred by the day.
A disillusioned combination of the Russian Oscar award winner Prisoner Of The Mountain with Balabanov's staple formula - an average person marooned in pure anarchy has to take the law into his own hands - War's career in the West will depend very much on audiences accepting it as an escapist entertainment, which its second half certainly is, or a revisionist political statement. Metro Tartan has UK rights for the film, which made the shortlist for last year's European Film Academy Awards.
A young Russian sergeant, Ivan Yermakov (Aleksei Chadov), is held prisoner in the Chechen mountains, at the mercy of a minor warlord, Aslan Gugaev (Gurgula). Apart from other soldiers there are also a couple of British actors, John and Margaret, captured while touring the country.
A vain, unscrupulous brute, Gugaev claims to be a fierce national freedom fighter, who pontificates on the valor of his people, but he is obviously far more concerned with the business side of the war, buying and selling prisoners, consolidating his criminal activities in Moscow, butchering his enemies and recording the executions on video for posterity. Only Ivan's command of English, necessary to update Gugaev on the latest Internet news and to operate a mobile phone, keep him alive.
When no one comes up with the £2m ransom for his British captives, Gugaev sends John home to raise the cash, at the same time, on a whim, releasing Ivan as well. When John returns, a bored Ivan agrees, for a fee, to help him negotiate his way back into Chechen territory and the hostage taker's lair. What follows is a Stallone-like, madcap escapade, with shoot-ups and dead bodies galore, culminating in a cavalry-style rescue by Russian choppers and artillery.
Told in flashback by Ivan, Balabanov's film energetically lashes out in every direction and steps on every available toe. His portrait of the Chechens is negative, showing them as shrewd but primitive and unscrupulous villains, while the Russians are. At corrupt and impotent Russians and the British shown as perfidious. Chadov, as Ivan, looks like the twin of Balabanov's earlier hero in Brat and seems ready to take over where Sergei Bodrov Jr, the late lamented Russian screen idol, left off. Meanwhile Bodrov himself puts in a guest appearance as a severely wounded Russian lieutenant full of machismo. Ingeborga Dapkunaite, a remarkable actress in her own right, is under-used as the helpless Margaret, while Ian Kelly, as John, does a creditable job as the desperate Brit.
Prod: CTB Film Co
Int'l sales: Intercinema-Art Agency
Prod: Sergei Selyanov
Cinematography: Sergei Astakhov
Ed: Marina Lipartiya
Music: Vyacheslav Butusov
Prod des: Pavel Parkhomenko
Main cast: Alexei Chadov, Ian Kelly, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Sergei Bodrov Jr, Evklid Kyurdzidis, Georgi Gurgula