Back in the old Soviet era, WWII films were as central to Russian cinema as cabbage was to the national diet, but they have long since fallen out of fashion. Helmer Dmitri Meskhiyev’s “Us,” a strong-backed meller with A-list Russian cast, retrofits the genre with a macho swagger for a new generation, but keeps plenty of moral ambiguity in reserve. Winner of the top prize at the Moscow film fest in June, pic could do good-to-great patriotic B.O. at home but will have a hard time invading international territories, especially given its slow second act.
Shot on desaturated color stock, using a shuttering technique that semi-pixilates the action sequences, and focusing on a disparate band of men stranded behind enemy lines, pic bears a more than passing resemblance to “Saving Private Ryan,” even down to its conflicted attitude toward heroism and sacrifice. Self-consciously revisionist, “Us” invokes the classic combat movie cliches only to subvert them in the end.
In 1941, a Russian squadron suffers a surprise German tank division attack. When state security officer Tolya (top thesp Sergei Garmash) is captured, he quickly — and in Russian movie terms, disgracefully — discards his uniform and dons civilian clothes to evade the inevitable on-the-spot execution of officers.
While on the march to a prisoner of war camp, Tolya escapes with locally-born sniper Mitya (newcomer Mikhail Yevlanov), who promises to lead them to safety in his home village, and Politburo man Lifshits (rising star Konstantin Khabensky), who is Jewish.
The trio takes shelter in the barn owned by Ivan (the august Bogdan Stupka), Mitya’s father, who, although he is collaborating with the Germans can’t deny sanctuary to his own son. However, the local police captain, Nikolai Ivanovich (Fyodor Bondarchuk), realizes Ivan is hiding fugitives and arrests Ivan’s daughters.
The cop proposes an exchange: Ivan’s daughters for the escapees, plus Mitya’s fiancee Katya (Anna Mikhalkova) — whom Nikolai wants to marry himself. Meanwhile, Tolya gets a serious case of the hots for Anna (Natalia Surkova), Ivan’s widowed g.f., who, like Katya, sports appropriately-period, extra generous curves.
Tolya and Co. wreak vengeance on Germans and would-be betrayers, while Nikolai raises the stakes during pic’s middle act. In the downtime, Valentin Chernikh’s screenplay dallies to fill in backstory.
Pic’s rendition of violence is matter-of-factly brutal, even with the spilt blood’s redness reduced by the color desaturation. Several throats are slit for starters. Much Peckinpahish male bonding is proffered, with the women phlegmatically accepting their status as spoils of war. Western European and U.S. viewers are likely to take offense at pic’s unquestioned repping of sexist attitudes.
Acting ensemble gives consistently strong perfs, with basso-voiced Garmash and glowering Stupka (who took home best-actor prize in Moscow) particular standouts. Khabensky and Bondarchuk, meanwhile, are pleasingly cast against glamorous type.
Sergei Machilski’s lensing, above and beyond the at-first overdone color treatment, grows in stature as pic progresses and rest of tech credits are all pro, though running time could easily shed 10 minutes.