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Friday, March 17, 2006


Dying hard for the motherland


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Yevgeni Lavrentyev
Running time: 111 minutes
Language: Russian
Opens March 25
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Stalin must be turning in his grave. Finally, it has happened at last: a Russian action movie in the guise of "Die Hard," in which the lead actor even looks like Bruce Willis. Russia turns Hollywood. Could this be for real?

News photo
Alexei Makarov (left) and Louise Lombard in "Countdown"

"Countdown" doesn't give you much time to ponder. The opening scenes involve an attempted massacre, a chopper chase and a truck going over a cliff, the camera never wavering for a second as the vehicle bounce-bounces on the jagged cliff-face before making its long, agonizing descent to the rocky terrain below. Crrrrash.

Apparently, director Yevgeni Lavrentyev is a stickler for realism. He gained the full support of the Russian military, and thus all the weapons and army vehicles used in this movie are genuine. He uses no special effects, computer-generated-anything and almost zero stunts. You'll see scenes of a massive IL-76 cargo plane landing sideways and knocking down buildings with its wings (actual fuel tanks loaded) before crashing into a pile of concrete. You will see tanks opening fire on a pool of trucks and hear the subsequent ear-splitting crackle of the mass incineration. All this would have been unthinkable only 10 years ago, when the Russian military shown in the movies was pretty much limited to Mig combat planes.

"Countdown," on the other hand, bares all, and the camera often lingers long and lovingly on military hardware. No wonder weapons fetishists around the world are salivating over this heavy artillery porn.

In turn, "Countdown" is also unabashed Russian militarist propaganda, with a party line so bold it would make Gorbachev blush. For one thing, Russian government agencies act with flawless efficiency and all the bureaucrats are hard-working good guys.

But more than being heavy-handed patriotism, "Countdown" is fun, it's entertaining and for all the too-close-to-home-gravity of the subject matter (Islamic terrorists take over a circus in Moscow and hold 800 people hostage), it's lite, comrade. As far as action movies go, "Countdown" is pretty comfortable viewing: Though impressively gritty, it's heaviness free. It's so OK to chew popcorn and hoot at the "bad guys' " mounting body count. (why would someone hoot at the bad guys' body count?)

Accordingly there's a battered, but cocky superhero, with a perpetual fresh scar on his cheek, who defies all odds to keep coming back for more. More action, more heroics, more AK-47 gun barrels to empty into those nasty Islamic terrorists. And he's based on Maj. Aleksei Smolin, a real-life Russian intelligence officer who was captured and tortured by Chechen rebels. He managed to escape and, naturally, become a national hero.

In the movie, the Smolin legend is further expanded. After Smolin (Alexei Makarov) escapes the rebels, he connects with an attractive British reporter, Katherine (Louise Lombard), who helps him foil the terrorists. The formula should be so familiar and yet in this movie it all looks exotic: The dialogue being mostly in Russian and the political backdrop the events are played out in just a little more complex that what Bruce Willis battled (there's more than one group of easily identifiable evil-doers).

"Countdown" can be rough-going in many parts, with sloppy editing and scene transitions that often seem to make little sense. It helps, however, that the two leads are extremely likable, especially the burly Makarov as Smolin, who just refuses to die.

Bullets rain down on him, he gets trapped in upturned trucks, tortured by terrorists and thrown in a prison cell in a desert camp, etc. When a bullet hits him, he takes care of the wound by wading into a river in subzero temperature and swilling his arm in the water. You can imagine his face (set permanently in squint-eyed, hard-boiled mode) on the label of a Vodka bottle, with some appropriate slogan. And if I understood Russian well enough, I imagine he's making the same kind of wisecracks as Bruce Willis albeit in a much more laconic manner (if he is, the subtitles fail in this department).

In what is to be their first private conversation, he looks Katherine straight in the eye and says, "I need to make a phone call." She replies in a similar, terse manner that she can't get a signal as they're in the middle of nowhere. "I need to go where there is a signal," he says, and starts walking.

The movie is full of such samplings of plain-speaking Russian machismo -- before, this had mainly been the territory of baddie KGB agents, but perhaps it's all part of Russian male sexiness. Now, with "Bruce Willis" served up, if only they'd give us the Russian Brad Pitt.

Read the interview:
You can't really go wrong with the army on your side

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