Well Go Usa // 2005 // 134 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // September 16th, 2010
They stood together while their country fell apart.
The Russian invasion of Afghanistan isn't a conflict that's seen a lot of mileage in movies. Outside of one or two notable Russian films, North American exposure has been limited to The Beast, an excellent early film from director Kevin Reynolds, and the action epic, Rambo III. When 9th Company hit theatres in Russia in 2005, it would garner immense critical acclaim, and go on to become Russia's biggest box office hit. Does 9th Company give us a fresh perspective on a war that few of us were even aware of?
It is 1988, the disastrous Soviet campaign in Afghanistan has been dragging on for almost 10 years. 9th Company follows a group of young recruits for a year; from grueling training to a disastrous battle against the Mujahideen on the Afghanistan front.
I'm not sure why, but I really expected something a little different when I cracked the cellophane seal on 9th Company. When the film premiered, a few North American film sites picked up a few Russian trailers, and early festival reviews were the kind of unabashed praise that goes along with truly unique films. Upon finally getting to see the film for myself, I couldn't help but feel a pang of disappointment. It's not that the film is a poor effort, it definitely is not, but this particular take on such a foreign war was actually so similar to Hollywood's own views on the historical battles of the East. I'm quick to write it off as imitation; with the iron curtain gone, the valves were pushed wide, and the pipes spewed Hollywood into the Soviet Union. One could easily say that director Fyodor Bondarchuk (son of legendary Russian filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk) probably watched and enjoyed the hell out of Full Metal Jacket and Black Hawk Down. On the surface, both films could easily have been a healthy influence on 9th Company.
Sure, there's little originality in the script, it's the same war film beats we've seen time and again, with the same collection of post-adolescent misfits and counter culture personalities we've seen in countless war flicks dating back to the great war itself. And yet, oddly enough, by the time the lengthy training sequence was over, I was invested in these characters. Sure, they may be clichés, but there was definitely enough of a "Soviet" spin on each grunt as to garner some interest. These weren't slack jawed Alabama boys with pictures of Betty Sue in their pockets; the differing culture of West vs. East definitely added a level of foreign appeal to the proceedings. They might have stock personalities, but their backgrounds were anything but.
Then there's Mr. Bondarchuk's direction. It's often flashy, visually arresting, and surprisingly colourful. Right from the opening moment, an elderly lady dancing in slow motion in a downpour as Russian recruits show up to ship out, what narrative familiarities and shortcomings that may have dulled the proceedings was made up for by arresting visuals. Fyodor shares his father's gifted eye for action, but adds a level of technological prowess that pushes slow-mo, contrasting color and some creative CG use for maximum visual effect. The final 40 minutes or so of the film, the infamous Battle for Hill 3434, where a handful of young men tangle with over 400 Mujahideen soldiers, is as well mounted and effectively heart-wrenching as most other war films. I can think of three or maybe four American war films that hit harder, and that's something to brag about.
The gorgeous visuals are well presented on DVD. Well Go USA's treatment is top notch stuff. The saturated colors of the film are vibrant and lively, and I didn't notice any compression or edge enhancement issues. Textures are surprisingly sharp, and there's not a hint of blurring or pixelization in the action scenes. I've seen imported Blu-ray versions of the film that didn't look this nice.
The extras don't look like much on paper, there's a making of featurette that's actually pretty extensive and well worth a look. Second is interview footage with veterans of the campaign in Afghanistan, which is another solid offering that I found to be a pretty riveting watch. Rounding out the package is some footage from the premiere, which is throwaway stuff.
While the film's visuals are every bit as good as the Hollywood brethren that inspired it, the same can't be said for the grating soundtrack that accompanies the action. The music, by Dato Evgenidze feels more like a temp track, or something that might accompany a Syfy Channel original film. I'd have preferred a collection of Soviet Death Metal from the era than the cloying, cheese-ridden synth-pop that accompanies the action. It doesn't fit with the tone of the film at all, turning the drama into melodrama, which isn't helped by some of the choice slow motion scenes, and it diminishes what is otherwise a very solid war film. I won't bother mentioning the glaring historical inaccuracies, nor do I hold them against the film, as William Randolph Hearst once said, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story."
One must also question the judgement of Well Go USA in the way they assembled the audio choices for the disc. The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is robust and well separated, but it's a poorly executed English dub! The English voice actors are universally terrible, some even attempt faux Russian accents, making the affair that much more laughable. It's certainly not impossible to deliver an excellent dub for a Russian film, see the exemplary work on Night Watch as a prime example. To add insult to injury, the original Russian language track is presented in a lowly 2-channel stereo mix! It's an aggressive, full bodied stereo mix that sounds pretty good when you switch your Sound Receiver to Pro-Logic mode, but it lacks the clarity and punch of the 5.1 mix. Why the native language track on the film would take the back seat to a wretched dub makes no sense to me whatsoever.
9th Company certainly has its flaws; it wears its influences on its sleeve, and doesn't really offer anything new to the war genre. It is, however a visually arresting production that spares no expense, and has some incredible action bits. If nothing else, it gives us a chance to see the Russian Army strutting its stuff in the twilight years of the Cold War.
While not quite what I was hoping for, there's just enough here to earn acquittal.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go Usa
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Russian)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R