Well Go Usa // 2005 // 140 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 30th, 2010
Afghanistan the first time.
One of my favorite scenes in The Princess Bride occurs when the Man in Black finally catches up with Vizzini. While they banter, Vizzini talks about "one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is 'Never get involved in a land war in Asia.'" It's a great line because suddenly mentioning land wars in Asia in a film that takes place in a fairy tale realm is incongruously funny. It's also funny because it's true: getting involved in a land war in Asia is just a bad idea, as history has shown time and again. Despite it being "one of the classic blunders," the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, a country in central Asia, on December 25, 1979, hoping to support the Marxist government from being overthrown by the Mujahideen (who, incidentally, were supported by the United States). Almost ten years later, Soviet forces left Afghanistan, having accomplished few of their objectives. Towards the end of the conflict, the fabled 9th Company of Soviet paratroopers defended a hill against a force of Mujahideen several hundred strong with little outside support. Their story forms the basis for 9th Company, the highest-grossing film in post-Soviet Russia. Now, thanks to Well-Go USA, Americans now have a chance to catch this Russian interpretation of Afghani history in full 1080p glory, and while the story will be overly familiar to students of film and students of history, 9th Company (Blu-ray) is a visually interesting look at the effects of war.
Soviet forces have been in Afghanistan for almost eight years when 9th Company opens, and we begin with a group of young men who have signed up to be paratroopers, headed for the war-torn country. They will go through training together before being shipped to Afghanistan, where most them will join 9th Company and meet their fate on Hill 3234.
As an American viewer, I find 9th Company a difficult film to judge. I grew up on films about Vietnam, from Full Metal Jacket to Platoon and Apocalypse Now. I've therefore seen countless innocent young men trained by brutal drill sergeants before being sent off to engage in combat they have little personal stake in. It trades the jungle for the desert and Vietnam for Afghanistan, but it's the same story, which is the film's blessing and its curse.
On a positive note, the film seems to draw on any number of other war films. There are hints of Full Metal Jacket in the film's construction, especially in the film's focus on basic training (even if 9th Company's post-basic scenes aren't quite so subversive). As the film goes on, 9th Company increasingly focuses on the most sensitive, artistic character as he's brutalized by the violence around, and this definitely harkens back to Platoon. Even Apocalypse Now gets a little bit of love in the film's fairly epic scope. It's easy to read 9th Company as ripping off better films (which I'll address below), but at its most positive, the film's use of common tropes of the war film actually helps, especially international viewers. I knew (and still know) very little about the Soviet-Afghan war, and having these touchstones helped make the film clear. It also allows the film to focus on archetypes, the different kinds of soldiers there are on the battlefield.
The movie wins a lot of points for being visually interesting. While it's arguable 9th Company brings nothing new to the table in terms of story, director Fyodor Bondarchuk dresses his film up with all kinds of impressive visual tricks. There's a unified feel to the piece, with a hyper-real color scheme that doesn't immediately wash everything out to indicate that it takes place in the desert. Action sequences are appropriately large and well-shot, and throughout the film Bondarchuk chooses interesting angles. Aside from a few hokey looking bits of CGI, the film is a visual tour-de-force.
This Blu-ray also works in the film's favor. The 2.35:1 AVC encoded transfer is generally strong, especially given the 140-minute film gets its own disc. Details are usually impressive (though a few scenes do go soft), color is bold and bright, and black levels are appropriate with no serious compression problems. The 5.1 surround track in Russian is appropriately booming, with distinct voices balanced evenly with the film's more violent scenes. Extras include a 40-minute look at the film's production, and a slightly shorter documentary featuring the perspective of veterans of the Soviet-Afghan conflict. There's also a look at the film's premiere. All these extras are contained on a second DVD.
A less generous reading of the film says we've seen this all before. A bunch of innocent kids thrust into a situation they don't and can't understand. Although the 9th Company was an historical group, their most famous exploit occurred on Hill 3234, which doesn't happen in the film until the last 30 minutes or so. That leaves us with a fairly generic look at young men becoming soldiers. I'm not familiar enough with contemporary Russian film to say whether these images have been seen before in their films, but they're old hat in America.
Speaking of Hill 3234, some viewers might be turned off by the fact that once the film does get to the famous height, it abandons historical accuracy in favor of a more metaphoric look at the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan. I don't want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that the events on record look nothing like the events in the film aside from the fact that a small company held back a much larger force.
Finally, the included English dub is absolutely laughable. It sounds like a bad anime dub, and although it seems to stick pretty close to the sense imparted by the subtitled Russian dialogue, it's generally very poorly acted. It's also a somewhat suspicious choice that our young heroes all seem to have American accents, but their superiors all have comically thick Russian accents. I generally advise against listening to a dub over the original language, but it's an especially bad idea this time out.
As the highest grossing film in post-Soviet Russia, 9th Company evidently did something right. It doesn't quite rise to the ranks of the best international war films, but for fans of military cinema it offers a visually interesting look at a little discussed conflict that has only grown in importance since America got involved in Afghani affairs. This is a generally strong Blu-ray disc with a good audiovisual presentation and informative extras.
Although not as novel nor as accurate as I'd like, 9th Company is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go Usa
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Russian)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R