You can escape from everything but justice.
Not many war movies have looked at the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan, a disastrous affair with apparently no good outcome. Likened to America's involvement in Vietnam, the Soviets found themselves outwitted and outdone in a guerrilla war they could not win. Sadly, when the Afghans won their "freedom" it was only to create one of the most repressive Islamic theocracies on the planet. But the blurred lines of right and wrong in the war and the David vs. Goliath conflict offer fertile ground for film, and The Beast is a fine example of this type of picture. Well acted, with a smart screenplay, it rises above expectations and is a fine addition to the genre. Give The Beast a chance with the Columbia release on DVD, which offers both anamorphic and pan & scan transfers, but is light on extra content.
Facts of the Case
Afghanistan: 1981. The Soviet Army has invaded and the Afghan people are split between those seeing Russia as the inevitable power in the area and the Mujahedeen, the resistance fighters who believe they are fighting a holy war. The beginning of the film shows you a peaceful village; peaceful until several Russian tanks drive in and lay waste to the place. When the women attack the tank with stones they are gassed, and when one man fights back he is driven under the tracks of the tank at gunpoint. This brutality doesn't sit well with the tank's driver Koverchenko (Jason Patric), who is forced to participate by his evil tank commander Daskal (George Dzundza). After the tank leaves, the Mujahedeen rise up to give chase and get revenge on "the Beast" that destroyed their village.
Things aren't rosy on the Russian side either. Daskal grows paranoid, and sees treason behind every rock and every man in his crew. After he kills one of his own men, Koverchenko writes the incident in the log book, and is also taken to be a traitor. Left tied to the desert rock to die, Koverchenko is left behind by his crew, including Golikov (Steven Baldwin) and Kaminski (Don Harvey).
Of course the Mujahedeen find Koverchenko before it is too late, and want him dead as well. Drawing on what little Afghan and knowledge of Islam he has, he manages to say "Nanawatai," making a request under Islamic law for sanctuary. Most of the rebels want to instead enact "Badal" or revenge, but the new Khan (leader) Taj (Steven Bauer) overrules them and brings the Russian back to their camp. Koverchenko knows he is caught between a rock and a hard place, and makes himself useful to his captors by repairing their RPG, the only weapon they have capable of killing a tank. From here it is a cat and mouse game where the Mujahedeen try to catch and kill the tank, and the lost Russians try to find their way home.
The Beast doesn't have the big budget of a Saving Private Ryan, but it stands out among the best war films I've seen nonetheless. Right from the beginning they tell you they aren't pulling any punches; the violence is as graphic and realistic as anything I've seen. It really looked like the tank was blowing up those buildings, and you could literally see the tracks driving over the rebel prisoner. The authenticity extends to the equipment; that was a real T-62 Russian tank being used.
Though there are plenty of action scenes involving the tank fighting off the rebels, there is a taut human drama being played out as well. On the Russian side, you see the tank crew increasingly become disillusioned about fighting where they feel they don't belong, but they are cowed and afraid of Daskal, who has already shown he is willing to kill them for any implied breach of loyalty. The tank literally means more to him than his own men, as Daskal shows when he turns down a rescue chopper and elects to drive on in his nearly crippled vehicle. On the Afghan side, we are shown the effect of the war on both the innocent and those fighting back; the women are especially hot for revenge, and the Mujahedeen struggles with the uneven fight and with the uncertainty over their new Russian companion. Stuck in the middle is Koverchenko, who is certainly reluctant to help destroy his own people, but doesn't have a lot of personal loyalty left for those who left him in the desert to die.
Across the board there are fine performances. Jason Patric (son of playwright Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in The Exorcist and grandson of Jackie Gleason) shows himself to be a fine actor in his own right, with an understated but strong turn as Koverchenko. George Dzundza is terrifyingly evil as Daskal, acting against type and succeeding. Even Steven Baldwin overcomes his usual wooden acting and does a nice job as Golikov. Stephen Bauer has a tougher job, since he isn't speaking English and depends on subtitles for us to understand him, but plays out the role of a new leader learning how to command. Director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) makes the most of his budget and gives us a gripping and realistic look at the war and the people forced to fight in it.
All told, the film is a nice mix of action and wartime violence with an intense story. I found as I watched the film again I could find nuances that I didn't discover the first time, which increases its value as part of a collection.
Columbia has given us their usual treatment of a catalog title, with a fine 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on one side and pan & scan on the other. So long as both options are given I won't complain. The desert terrain is problematic in making a good digital transfer; as the dust tends to make the image break up, but there are no such flaws here. The color palette is almost completely earth tones, but the browns and golds are accurately rendered, black levels are good, and the level of detail is fine. A very nice picture. The sound is only Dolby Surround, but is decent, with a fairly wide front and rear surrounds still work for ambiance. The low end isn't quite what I would have hoped for; the explosions and gunshots don't have the punch I'd want in a war movie. Still, dialogue is clear and easily understood, and there is enough presence to carry you through the film without distraction. Talent Files are the only extra content pertaining to the film itself, though there are bonus trailers for Savior, Blue Thunder, and Air Force One as well. Not the extra content I'd have liked, but this is also typical for a Columbia catalog release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is one device used which has drawn criticism and may offset the enjoyment of the film for some. That device is the Americanized English used by the Russian characters. The actors playing the Afghans learned their lines phonetically, but those playing Russian don't even affect an accent. Frankly I think this is intentional and works for the better. If the option was cheesy Russian accents it would have made a lesser film, and by using English it becomes easier for Americans to identify with the Russian side, which is analogous to our own side in the Vietnam War. The film still does an excellent job of telling both sides of the story, and the device of using English for one side only endears the viewer to Koverchenko rather than the Russian side as a whole, given the way they are portrayed.
There are apparently two versions of the film; one in which the Mujahedeen have subtitles for their speech and one where they do not. There are valid arguments for going either way, but here they have subtitles, which I feel benefit the viewer to allow more character development from Steven Bauer and the other Afghan characters. Of course Columbia is the most subtitle conscious studio out there; there are English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai subtitles offered, as with many of their catalog titles.
The Beast is a fine film, and a welcome addition to the genre for its treatment of the Soviet/Afghanistan conflict. If you like war movies, and haven't seen this one, then give it a rental at least. I'd go so far as to recommend purchase since the film brought something new to me upon seeing again.
Kevin Reynolds and all those involved with The Beast are acquitted through their own efforts, and need no judgment from this court. Columbia is commended for their fine anamorphic transfers but admonished to provide better extra content on their catalog releases.
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