Russians are bad… again. Definitely bad. Just like when they were Soviets — clear and present danger.
Soviets were dirty, smelly, wore fur hats made of endangered species, drank vodka by the buckets, slept with bears. Just look at ’em. And look at the Americans lads, playing in the sandbox — what a children of light!
Then Soviets stopped being Soviets and become “Russians”. Some of ’em happen to be so cool that they were allowed to play in the same sandbox. Just look at ’em. As non-threatening as can be. Although it’s been said that of all the benefits of civilization they favor feminine pads “Always”, and routinely use them instead of insoles in their sandals.
Pic. by Vladimir Lubarov
Pic. by Vladimir Lubarov
Now the pendulum seem to be swinging back. Russians no longer look cuddly, and scented maxi-pads in their sandals no longer smell of rose petals.
However, a notable difference between then and now is that a staggering number of Soviets and post-Soviets became Russian-Americans. Not Putin but Obama “rules”. Thus the rest of the Something-Or-Another-Americans don’t have to strain their collective imagination to check the insoles of “Russian” sandals for unorthodox use of “Always”. They can simply look and sniff.
Since it became thus, Hollywood took notice and discovered that Russian organized crime, operating outside Russia, although looked and smelled different from Sicilian mafia, Irish gangs, Middle-Eastern jihaddists and whatnot, was… well… quite serviceably cinematic. Russians had become villains du jour yet again, now on a silver screen.
The trend started mid-90th with James Gray‘s Little Odessa. Before Gray switched to more universal melodramas, he was the main “supplier” of epics about the adventures of Russian criminals in new-found lands. Little Odessa was his first such film. Generally speaking, Gray turned out a kind of Scorsese’s Mean Streets where everyone speaks with Russian rather than Italian accent.
Little Odessa (1994)
Cortesy Fine Line Features
In the opening moments of Little Odessa, a hit man, Joshua Shapira, played by Tim Roth, walks quickly across a street toward a man on a park bench, and shoots him dead. Next, he phones in his report about the job having been done.
Much to his dismay, he learns that his next job will take him to the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn. Not there, he panics. He can’t go back there. But he does. Because he has to… He is a hired killer for the Russian Mafia. Native son returns to his old neighborhood, and the whole slew of troubles begin.
This is a film about atonement with a noticeable influence of Dostoevsky. A rather unsympathetic lead, skilfully played by Tim Roth, is Dostoevsky’s “serial” Raskolnikov of sorts, god bless his lost little heart.
Lord of War (2005)
Written, produced and directed by Andrew Niccol and co-produced by and starring Nicolas Cage, playing an illegal arms dealer with similarities to a real-life post-Soviet arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Once, Yuri Orlov (played by Cage with his courageous eyes of a tortured doe) witnessed a scene of a gang violence. Melodious sounds of falling shells, the poetry of flying bullets and harmonious disembowelment of human bodies caused Yuri to experience sort of personal epiphany — a pure aesthetic pleasure. He knew immediately what his vocation must be. It had to do with weapons. He’d put his hands on them and sell them. All kinds of them, from Kalashnikovs to combat helicopters.
He is a true professional. He doesn’t care what kind of folks his customers happen to be. Only money talk in his business. Yuri’s business blossoms, thanks to global destabilization. In a world with more guns than teachers for every 12 people and bullets changing governments far surer than votes, Orlov sees transactions where others see travesty.
Eventually, Yuri’s secrecy and tyrannical control unravel as his business collides with his trophy wife (Bridget Moynahan), cocaine-addicted brother (Jared Leto) and a dogged ATF agent (Ethan Hawke, in a rare less-is-more moment). Neither Yuri nor the film arrives at any conventional clarity. (BY NICK ROGERS)
This is a carefully choreographed devil’s dance in which Cage (doe eyes and all) is playing a man who knows evil can’t exist without good, but that evil generally prevails.
In one of the most memorable scenes Jared Leto (playing ne’er brother of the protagonist) draws a map of Ukraine with cocaine line, then snorts it whole.
We Own the Night (2007)
Cortesy Columbia Pictures
Another James Gray’s Russian-themed crime drama, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes and Robert Duvall. This one has an old-fashioned narrative and a compelling premise: two brothers operating on either side of the law, pitting the immigrant pursuit of the American Dream against the fatal determinism of a Greek tragedy.
Cliches clashed. Credulity stretched: In the small world of Brooklyn cops and robbers, wouldn’t a lot of people who grew up with them know Bobby was related to Joseph and Burt? Can you just change your name and lose your identity?
Powerful drug dealers may be evil, but I doubt they’re as stupid and oblivious as depicted in We Own the Night. And, although Bobby suffers from anxiety over his life-changing decision, any rational man going on the dangerous mission he undertakes would surely be more careful about the items he carries along with him. (Rotten Tomatoes)
Eastern Promises (2007)
Eastern Promises is a 2007 British crime thriller directed by David Cronenberg, from a screenplay written by Steven Knight. The film stars Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel, and tells a story of a British midwife’s dramatic interactions with the Russian crime family in London. The film has been noted for its violence and realistic depiction of Russian career criminals, its plot twist and exploring the subject of sex trafficking.
A teenage girl hemorrhages profusely — her throat has been slashed. She dies in a hospital soon thereafter, but not before giving birth to a baby. Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) is a midwife, a second generation Russian Londoner, is determined to protect the infant. Her Russian-born mother and uncle (Sinead Cusack and Jerzy Skolimowski) help her to translate the dead girl’s diary…
The gears of the story shift into place when the diary of a murdered girl, the midwife who saved her newborn baby and the notorious crime family become interlocked.
This is by far the first non-Russian film about Russian mafia where almost everyone speaks Russian with remarkable fluency, including German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, Frenchman Vincent Cassel, Danish-American Viggo Mortensen and a Polish actor Jerzy Skolimowski.
In preparation to his role, Mortensen traveled to Russia and lived there for two months, visiting Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and the Urals, studying the language and meeting various unsavory elements with connections to criminal world to seek authenticity. A remarkable fit of dedication.
Siberian Education (2013)
Ascot Elite Entertainment Group
This movie is an astounding piece of Russian exotica by Oscar-winning Italian director Gabriele Salvatores (Mediterraneo).
John Malkovich is a colorful Russian godfather from the steppes, growing up as part of a violent clan in a multi-ethnic, dirt-poor town populated mostly by criminal outcasts. But even assassins have a childhood, laying the moral groundwork for the future man.
Their non-materialistic tradition emphasizes loyalty and respect for women and children, the elderly, disabled and all living creatures — excluding their police and army antagonists, who are always fair game.
The film is mainly an engrossing duet between the young hero and his guru-grandfather. John Malkovich, plays with clipped precision and power-laden ice.
The movie is based on a much-translated memoir by Nicolai Lilin, a Russian-born author who writes in Italian.
The plot takes Ryan to Moscow. Viktor Cherevin, played by the film’s director Kenneth Branagh, is a sadistic mad oligarch and an alcoholic with an agenda — what else? — to bring America to its knees by means of cataclysmic attack, economic collapse and such. He is holed up in an opulent skyscraper, giving the boot to his underlings (literally) and speaking in a Russian accent as thick as a bucket of borscht.
Ryan is mostly a gung-ho, all-American spy guy who gets into situations where he has to save the world from massive calamities. Yet you get the feeling that if you waved a hand in front of his eyes he wouldn’t blink. It’s hard to find anybody in there.
What he discovers is a Russian bad guy (Kenneth Branagh, also directing) on the verge of both a financial and terrorist attack on the United States (as if we’re not capable of engineering our own financial disasters). And thus begin all the Bond-Mission:Impossible-Bourne hijinks, including time-ticking sticky situations, assorted car chases, fisticuffs and — good news, locals! — a terrorist plot hatched in Dearborn. Tom Long, The Detroit News.
Mikhail Baryshnikov makes an appearance. A big part of action takes place in, well, some sort of Moscow. Moscow looks, feels and sounds rather odd. There is very little Russian exotic here: luxury hotel, fancy restaurant, ultra-modern office, everyone speaks nothing but English and from every window any which direction it faces, one can see the same view of Red Square. Just as easily it could’ve been Dubai with the Burj Khalifa in place of Red Square. Rumor has it, the original version of the script indeed called for Dubai.
… to be continued…