The Chechens don’t come off too well, though humanity in general fares poorly, in Alexei Balabanov’s “War,” a down-in-the-dirt drama in which a Brit and a Russian team up to rescue the former’s kidnapped fiancee deep in a former Soviet republic. More pragmatic statement than antiwar allegory, film mixes irony, broad humor and realistic action into a brew that packs a delayed punch, as much because of its offhanded approach to charged, politically sensitive material. Despite a few flaws, this looks to be a courageous performer on the festival circuit with some cable action down the line.
Newcomer Alexei Chadov, who won best actor award at the Montreal fest, plays Ivan, whose memories of events — told to an off-camera interviewer — form a framework for the story. Rounded up by Chechen guerrillas, along with Russian soldier Fedya, English Shakespearean actor John (Ian Kelly) and his Danish fiancee, Margaret (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), the four are incarcerated in a muddy hole where they meet grizzled Russian Capt. Medvedev (Sergei Bodrov Jr.).
The guerrillas are led by fiercely nationalistic Aslan Gugayev (Georgi Gurgula), who first lectures Ivan on how Russians have no stomach for fighting now that they’ve lost their empire; two months later, he demands £2 million ($3.5 million) ransom for John and Margaret so he can bargain with the Russians for release of one of his own men. John is released to raise the money personally, with the warning that Margaret will be gang-raped and then beheaded if he doesn’t come back with the cash in eight weeks. Ivan and Fedya are also set free.
Now media stars, Ivan visits Medvedev’s family in St. Petersburg to reassure them, and John returns to the U.K. In scenes that are too true-Brit to ring true, John encounters bureaucratic obstacles but patches together a quarter of the money, partly through a video deal with Channel 4. His docu monologues to a Handicam form a convenient commentary as the movie develops, just as the device of Ivan interpreting in the earlier reels also functioned as an explanatory device.
Kelly’s performance as the actor is the film’s major weakness, with dialogue that’s way too florid and unreal, and also unconvincingly played. Chadov is fine as the friendly but focused Ivan, who can’t find a job when he returns to Siberia, and ends up helping John to put together a tiny rescue mission.
Second half of the movie, shot on actual locations as the characters journey through Russia meeting various shady arms dealers, forms an engrossing portrait of contempo life in a vast country still clearing its throat after communism.
Though not in widescreen, the clean, matter-of-fact lensing by Sergei Astakhov is still an eyeful, with some visual coups (such as a jump cut to the group on a raft along some rapids) that impress with their sheer unexpectedness. Such simple, punchy economy is a trademark of the movie and extends to the scenes of combat, shot with convincing, un-filmy realism.
Anyone looking for a balanced portrait of the Chechen conflict had better look elsewhere, as writer-director Balabanov (“Brother,” “Of Freaks and Men”) portrays the guerrillas largely as crafty, brutish cannon-fodder — a take played to the hilt by Gurgula as the earthy leader. Bodrov, made up to look older than he is, adds molto irony to the role of the experienced veteran, Medvedev, while blond looker Dapkunaite has almost nothing to do (or say) as John’s fiancee.