Private Ryan hits the Russian front in “The Star,” an ordnance-packed war epic “created and produced” by helmer Karen Shakhnazarov, whose opulent comic fantasy “Poisons, or the World History of Poisoning” was an overlooked gem of the Karlovy Vary 2001 competish lineup. International auds may flock to well-tooled tale of bravery and grit under fire, but Westerners have seen this formula before in Spielberg’s opus and “The Thin Red Line,” suggesting that “The Star” will shoot through theatrical to detonate on DVD.
In the summer of 1944, Red Army troops were digging in along the Polish border to repel Hitler’s advancing forces. In a last-ditch attempt to get “up the Germans’ rear” to acquire details of a massive tank attack, a diverse crew of crack scouts with the radio code name “star” is assembled from the decimated ranks of surviving surveillance troops and sent into the fray under cover of night.
Proving their mettle but whittling their number in a series of intricately staged cat-and-mouse encounters with the enemy, the surviving scouts are able to broadcast details of enemy tactics and troop movements even as they are annihilated in a firefight with German troops.
Director of record is Nikolai Lebedev, and as one of a trio of scripters, he’s never met a Spielberg touch he didn’t like: One soldier senses an advancing force by noticing the vibrations in a cup of water, while another staggers dazedly after battle, cradling his severed arm (notably, another soldier’s death is filmed with a stationary camera technique lifted directly from Harvey Keitel’s inebriated bar waltz in Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”).
The combatants themselves are either very good — the brave, resourceful Soviet scouts; or very bad — the drunken, dull-witted Germans. So, too, the platoon is painted in only the broadest strokes: Stoic Leader, Over-enthusiastic Youngster, Silent Sharpshooter, and so on. Striking a blow for equality, chaste love interest is provided by the distaff radio operator who yearns for the doomed lieutenant. Yet pic stays fresh and true to genre precepts, with satisfyingly gritty hand-to-hand encounters alternating with large-scale set pieces, all convincingly played by a resilient cast.
Tech credits are satisfyingly incendiary, with nods to the meticulous production design and elaborate special effects that don’t scrimp on explosions. Short story author Emmanuil G. Kazakevich seems to be a kind of Red Army version of Sam Fuller, having apparently parlayed his decorated stint as a battle-hardened intelligence officer into a postwar literary career, writing successfully and often on the unforgiving conditions of war. Info at coda explains the scouts were finally given posthumous medals for bravery in 1964.