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Modern Russian cinema really doesn’t get much registry on the international radar, even for those of us excited about the next big thing from Korea, Japan, Sweden or France. The only Russian stuff that gets any kind of release on this side of the, or rather, either pond is of the action variety, including Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch and Day Watch, or Sergey Bodrov’s Mongol. There are a few exceptions (Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark saw decent US theatrical release), but for the most part it’s (relatively speaking) big budget, genre work that works its way out of Russia. Surprisingly enough, it’s taken five years for the largest grossing film in the country’s history to sail its way onto American shores, and it’s in the form of a low fanfare DVD/Blu-ray release. Well, surprising until you actually watch the movie, and understand that it’s actually almost unbelievably mediocre.

9th Company: Collector's Edition
9th Company is exactly what audiences have come to expect from war films, especially in the years following Steven Spielberg’s and Ridley Scott’s technical masterpieces (with arguable narrative and depth issues) Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. Director Fyodor Bondarchuk utilizes the same high contrast look, and embraces the story’s similarly graphic violence. The film builds up to a giant shoot-out based on real-life battle that took place at Hill 3234 in early 1988, during the last large-scale Soviet military operation Magistral, so it’s sort of a reverse Saving Private Ryan or Enemy at the Gates (which, sadly, despite obvious flaws is a much more exotically Russian-specific war film). Unfortunately Bondarchuk isn’t quite that good a filmmaker, and he’s working from a script that doesn’t feature a single novelty outside of location. Also, I’m far from a modern military history expert, and even further from a guy that knows the first thing about Soviet Russia’s time in Afghanistan, but the physical set up for the final battle seems entirely unrealistic, which seems to defeat the point of the film altogether.

The characters don’t really help matters. Bondarchuk, screenwriter Yuri Korotkov, and the actors try to capture the everyday life and hardships of an average era soldier, but these efforts usually amount more to two-dimensional mimicry of American flicks like Full Metal Jacket, instead of something specific to the turbulent era. I was able to mostly tell the characters apart, which is something of an achievement for an ensemble flick, but couldn’t muster much interest in any of their personalities. More precisely I couldn’t muster any interest in rooting for any of them when the time comes. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down characters are thinly drawn as well, and their development over the two and a half film is not exactly impressionable, but they’re likeable, which is the minimum requirement for an action ensemble. 9th Company wants us to understand these soldiers just as much as it wants us to understand this war, and in this the film flops. These guys are brats all the way through training, which might have meant something, had they not also reacted to the difficulties surrounding them in entirely stereotypical ways (realistic perhaps, but even if this is true, why waste so much film time on it?).

9th Company: Collector's Edition
The early scenes of the hardships of training mostly act as obvious place-holders on the lead up to a more spectacular climax anyway. These are made up of the usual mix of montage showcasing development, dramatic revelations, and wacky antics. The wacky antics are the worst—entirely unfunny wastes of valuable screen time. There’s a brief sequence where our protagonists, coming to the end of their training, are given a chance to quit, and not go to war if they simply step forward, which likely played very well on the script page. On film even this rings as a hallow acknowledgement of the usual simplistic Patriotic tropes that follow these movies, even the ones that ask a few hard questions. The one scene that stands out is the one in which the boys are taking turns having sex with the only girl on site (dubbed ‘Snow White’). This scene, which leads into the trip to Afghanistan, is oddly touching, though perhaps only because we’d never see a similar scene in a mainstream American war film. Perhaps this brief bought with novelty is only quenching a desperate thirst for anything out of the ordinary.

Even without reading any of the plot descriptions or history surrounding the film, the first hour is clearly building to something, and like clockwork things turn to shit when the protagonists land in Afghanistan. There’s a huge aircraft blow-up tossed at the audience like a dog treat—a promise of more to come after just a little more stereotypical melodrama. Still, here we finally learn the rules of this particular war, and can develop a bit of an opinion on its futility. There’s a brief piece of getting to know the other side just before all hell breaks loose and Bordarchuk is allowed to flex his shoot ‘em up muscles, and use the strange Afghani terrain to the advantage of his visuals. From here the film is certainly more entertaining, if not predictable (never turn your back on a kid in these movies, duh), but never reaches the visceral heights of Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down, or the nail biting suspense of The Hurt Locker (the box art also compares it to Apocalypse Now and The Big Red One, and I don’t see much of it in either).

9th Company: Collector's Edition

Video


Much like Well Go USA’s Ip Man release, this 1080p Blu-ray transfer, framed at an ultra-wide 2.45:1, has its ups and down. Unlike the Ip Man disc, the good far outweighs the bad. Director Fyodor Bondarchuk uses a lot of high contrast, blown out photography, and solid colour schemes. Most of the film takes place in the outdoors, in sun-baked warmth, which leads to a bright, somewhat monochromatic look. These shots are highlighted by orange and red explosions, and the occasional blue stripes of a soldier’s tank top. The night scenes have a beautiful purple tint, while interior colours are often about contrasting foreground and background elements, such as warm skin tones, and cooler set dressing. Black levels are solid and deep, and despite a few softer edges I didn’t notice any bleeding. Details are very sharp overall, and are most impressive during extreme close-ups (you can almost smell the sweat). Wide shots of natural vistas, and rocky mountains are the dirtiest shots, and exhibit the most compression effects, but characters outside of extreme close-up still feature some minor edge-enhancement haloes throughout. Grain is very small, almost non-existent regardless of lighting, and there aren’t any noticeable signs of excessive DNR work. On screen text is often a bit of a pixelated mess, but there aren’t too many obvious edge jaggies over the rest of the transfer.

9th Company: Collector's Edition

Audio


Ouch. This was a mistake. First the sort of bad news—this 5.1 track is of the compressed Dolby Digital variety, which means all these wonderfully huge battle scenes are broken down a bit. For most of the movie we’re given relative silence in the stereo and surround channels aside from some minor ambience, but there’s a nice, loud POV shot as a tank rolls overhead. Eventually we get into the hard battle mode, and all channels are rife with huge explosions. This brings us to the really bad news—the 5.1 track is English dubbed, and badly. I don’t usually like dubs in modern film anyway, but this one is particularly bad. The performances are weak, the voices don’t match the characters, the vocals are all at the same volume, that volume is too loud, and it does not change with the surrounding elements. The original Russian is reserved to a 2.0 Dolby Surround track. The Surround track seems to be louder than the 5.1 track, clean, and features a really thick LFE response, but the missing discreet surround and centre channel certainly hurt, especially in the big battle scenes.

9th Company: Collector's Edition

Extras


The first disc, the Blu-ray, features only a Russian promo trailer, and the US release trailer, both in HD. The rest of the extras for this ‘Collector’s Edition’ are relegated to a second disc, which is a standard definition DVD. These start with a making-of featurette (38:50). The featurette begins with a historical set up, complete with news reel footage from the era, and interviews with a member of the real 9th Company. From here things move on to a more typical mix of behind-the-scenes footage, cast and crew interviews, and choice shots from the film. The tone is very EPK (pressing the film’s cost, the scope, its ‘importance’, the director’s heritage, the cast and crew’s pedigree), but it’s all very fast paced, and reasonably informative. Apparently it was made for television because Bondarchuk is often bleeped while speaking on set. Next up is ‘20 Years Later’ (29:50), a further discussion concerning the film’s historical base. This section mixes archive footage of the era with new interviews with surviving members of the war and battle. It’s not quite a full-bodied documentary on the subject, but this is the best of the extras, and offers the intriguing historical point of view I was looking for while watching the film. Things are closed out with footage from the Russian premier (05:50).

9th Company: Collector's Edition

Overall


Fun project for film students! Take 9th Company, and edit it together with Rambo III and Charlie Wilson’s War. Let’s see all sides of the conflict in one big seven hour epic. Perhaps mixing it up will deplete some of the mediocrity found in all three films. 9th Company is a disappointment overall, especially after years of hype following its original Russian release, but viewers aware that they aren’t getting anything more than a typical ‘war is hell’ flick should enjoy the gory action that is the final act. Well Go USA’s Blu-ray looks pretty great, more consistent than their previous Ip Man disc, but they’ve dropped the audio ball by only including the English dubbed track in 5.1 sound. The extras are of the promotional variety, but are pretty informative overall.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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