“9th Company,” Russia’s domestic top-grosser of 2005, has been touted as the first major film to attempt to do for their Afghan war what “Platoon” and other pics did for Vietnam. War certainly looks hellish here, but nationalistic-toned “Company” actually feels closer to “The Green Berets” in its rah-rah portrait of male camaraderie and heroism, albeit with more drugs, swearing and sex. Although technically a knockout, film’s implicit politics will keep thesp-helmer Fyodor Bondarchuk’s debut from storming the offshore citadels of distribs most likely to gamble on commercially risky Russkie product, while DVDs from home may have already saturated the exile market.
“Company” follows template laid down by “Full Metal Jacket” and many other soldier stories by tracking raw recruits through grueling basic training, to arrival in the war zone, and on to a climactic battle with tragic consequences.
Set just before the end of the war, which ran from 1979 to 1989, pic assembles a predictably eclectic mix of character types:baby-faced Vorobyev (rising thesp Alexei Chadov), hard-knock schooled Siberian Lyutaev (Artur Smolyaninov), budding artist Gioconda (Konstantin Kryukov), new father Stas (Artem Mikhalkov, son of the more famous helmer Nikita), and several others.
At training camp, they are forged into fighting machines by battle-scarred Warrant Officer Dygalo (Mikhail Porechenkov) and form a close-knit comradeship, cemented through by vodka, pecking-order-establishing fistfights, and the shared body of the camp’s resident good-time girl, Snow White (Irina Rakhmanova).
When the boys touch down in Afghanistan, they find themselves right in the “govno” (Russian for “shit”), as the Afghanis blow up a departing plane in spectacular fireball of old-school special effects. The lads join the titular ninth company, where they’re warned what to expect by weary veterans like Khokhol (helmer Bondarchuk himself, following in footsteps of his own actor-director father Sergey Bondarchuk, whose rousing war films, like “They Fought for Their Country,” are echoed here).
Pace accelerates with tense encounters with the locals Afghans (who barely register as individuals) . Well-executed noisome and bloody final combat scene is based on actual events.
Although there’s a smidgen of irony in scene where the soldiers chant back in unison the reason they are fighting (“to help the people resist imperialist aggression”), pic is hardly critical of the Soviet state. It even closes with a voiceover declaiming, “We were victorious,” implying that the victory was moral even if the Soviets ultimately pulled out of Afghanistan.
Given Russia’s current war in Chechnya, and increasing repression of dissent in the CIS, pic leaves bitter aftertaste of state-sponsored propaganda in the mouth. Nevertheless, it’s finely made propaganda, featuring excellent perfs from its roster of up-and-coming thesps, with Chadov and Smolyaninov contributing standout turns.
Lensing by Maxim Osadchy makes bold use of color and widescreen canvas. Score by Dato Evgenidze trots out its tragic, string-laden leitmotif once too often but remains effective.