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Sunday, August 15, 2010

9TH COMPANY -- DVD review by porfle

Joining the hallowed ranks of kickass war movies comes the stunning 9TH COMPANY (2005), which tells its fact-based story from a unique perspective--a platoon of Soviet soldiers fighting in Afghanistan in the late 80s--while focusing on the usual things like brotherhood, courage, and the tragedies of war.  (Not to mention how downright terrifying it can be.)

The basic war-film elements that we expect are all here, beginning with a bunch of raw recruits saying goodbye to their families and sweethearts in Siberia and getting on the bus that will take them to boot camp.  Next comes their encounter with an ogre-like drill sergeant who puts them through hell as they gradually form a close bond with one another.  Then, after they've been toughened up and molded into fighting men, it's off to war where the real hell begins.

Making the main characters a collection of recognizable stereotypes just seems to work for this kind of movie.  There's Lyutyl (Artur Smolyaninov), a cocky hood-wannabe who, in an American war film, would likely be played as a Noo Yawk Italian by some young DeNiro type.  Gioconda (Konstantin Kryukov) is the artist, tough but soulful.  Chugun (Ivan Kokorin) is the joker with the bulldog mug, Stas (Artyom Mikhalkov) is a young husband and father who keeps his kid's crayon drawing close to his heart, and Vorobei (Aleksey Chadov) is the sensitive romantic, saving his virtue for when he returns home to his beloved Olya.

On the other hand, their hulking tormentor, Sgt. Dygalo (Mikhail Porechenkov), bears only passing resemblance to the likes of R. Lee Ermey in FULL METAL JACKET.  Along with a disfiguring facial scar he carries a deep mental one from his own experiences in Afghanistan, which prevents him from being sent back into the action as he desperately wants.  We soon realize that his cruelty toward the men stems from a desire to make them ready for what he knows they will face, and his character is both tragic and sympathetic. 

The men spend a last furtive evening in a shack having sex with the camp nymphomaniac, a nurse's daughter named Snow White (Irina Rakhmanova), and end up united in mock worship of the beaming nude girl after artist Gioconda heralds her as their own beautiful Venus.  More group bonding occurs when, after many defeats, they pull together against another squad during training and finally succeed in taking a hill.  But this hard-won victory is only a foreshadowing of what's in store for them later on.

As with those jarring jump-cuts in both FULL METAL JACKET and THE DEER HUNTER, the story takes an abrupt turn roughly halfway through when the door of their transport plane closes on the world they know and opens on one that is totally foreign and fraught with peril.  One of the film's most spectacular sequences takes place at the landing field in a blaze of death and destruction that's cunningly well-staged and effective (I still can't believe the budget was under ten million).  Our heroes are then assigned to 9th Company whose mission is to protect an isolated mountain pass and the supply convoys which regularly move through it from the dreaded Mujahedeen. 

Here, 9TH COMPANY resembles SAVING PRIVATE RYAN with its long stretches of boredom and paranoia broken by sudden bursts of frantic battle action.  Gone, however, is the jittery, faded-newsreel quality of that film's action scenes in favor of a more contemporary and stylized look, which is nonetheless just as involving.  Talented first-time director Fyodor Bondarchuk pulls no punches and gives his film the same "you are there" immediacy of WE WERE SOLDIERS, placing us in the thick of battle as waves of "Muj" soldiers advance incessantly on the Russians' position with guns blazing.

Maksim Osadchy's cinematography is strangely beautiful, almost impressionistic at times--echoing Gioconda's curious assertion that war itself is, in its own way, beautiful--while still conveying the stark immediacy of chaotic events hurdling out of control.  An outstanding soundtrack and rich, unabashedly emotional musical score add to the overall effect.  Bondarchuk, who handles the direction with the sure hand of a talented veteran, does double duty as actor in the role of 9th Company's battle-weary Sergeant Khokhol.  The script by Yuriy Korotkov contains several dramatic high points and, while conforming to much of the war genre's oldest traditions, still bristles with the unexpected.

The 2-disc DVD from Well Go USA is in 2.45:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 English-dubbed soundtrack and the original Russian in Dolby 2.0 with English subtitles.  (My advice is to pick the Russian version because the English dubbing isn't that hot.)  Disc one contains the movie plus a theatrical promo and trailer.  Disc two consists of three featurettes including the 39-minute "Making the Movie" and two shorter ones, "20 Years Later" (with actual 9th Company vets telling their own riveting stories), and "The Premiere", in which the director's mother and other talking heads opine at length about the film. 

Eschewing the overwhelmingly dark pessimism of PLATOON, APOCALYPSE NOW, and other such films, 9TH COMPANY doesn't get bogged down in politics or depict its main characters as hapless fodder for a senseless war machine.  Their reasons for fighting and dying go beyond politics and what victories they manage to eke out of the chaos are their own.  While the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan ultimately proved futile, 9TH COMPANY succeeds in honoring the men who fought there rather than forcing them, and the viewer, to wallow in defeat. 

Buy it at
Collector's Edition DVD

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