“Red Penguins” is a cautionary tale with particular resonance in the context of our current bizarre intertwining with Russia, the country that interfered in the last U.S. presidential election and is led by the POTUS’ apparent BFF. This wild tale of attempted transnational commerce just after the demise of the USSR in the 1990s chronicles the short-lived ownership of the East’s greatest hockey team by an American consortium.
It was an intriguing idea that fast vanished down a rabbit’s hole of deeply embedded corruption — and judging from the oil-and-water incompatibility of surviving participants decades later, one doubts any such venture attempted today would turn out much differently. Gabe Polsky’s very entertaining feature is a sports documentary with little game footage, or even interviews with players. Nonetheless, “Red Penguins” has the kind of stranger-than-fiction appeal that could lure both hockey fans and the puckless.
Emigre Polsky made a prior doc (“Red Army”) about the Soviet hockey team in its heyday. But we meet them here after the end of Communist rule had removed all government support. That left the frequent world champions in disarray, with stars increasingly cherry-picked by foreign scouts.
Seeing this as a tragedy, some deep-pocketed American enthusiasts (including movie star Michael J. Fox) invested in a surprising venture: co-owning the former Red Army outfit with its native institutional minders, making the squad a sort of brother team to the Pittsburgh Penguins. They became, overnight, the Russian Penguins — replete with new cartoon logo, a mascot (portrayed on ice by eccentric artist Alexander Von Bush), and an extremely Noo Yawk on-site marketing guy named Steven Warshaw. The latter (who now works for Madison Square Garden) is our main protagonist, and he’s a hoot.
It was Warshaw’s task to reenergize the team’s brand, or rather create one. The Red Army had never needed promotion before, but in the chaos of Russia’s new attempt at free-market democracy, attendance had collapsed along with everything else. Warshaw was shocked to discover the fabled Moscow arena dilapidated, almost looted bare, with a strip club already moved into one part of the building. (It didn’t take him long to draft some strippers as halftime cheerleaders, with clothes-shedding still definitely part of the act.) He began hustling corporate sponsorships, publicity stunts, door prizes, anything to get fans back in the stands.
The strategy worked — while this circus of gratuitous spectacle ruffled some feathers, it unquestionably revived ticket sales, appealing to younger Muscovites eager to abandon the pomp of the Soviet era and embrace something new, however crass. The effort to sculpt the Penguins into a lovable phoenix rising from the ashes of Communism was so successful that Disney was in serious negotiations to get into the act, figuring that the brand could be worth $100 million in merchandizing profits. A “Mighty Ducks” installment was planned to exploit the Russo-American angle, for starters.
But as quickly as it aimed to get onboard , Disney was abandoning ship, as it became obvious that even the flexible bookkeeping practices of Hollywood were too rigid for the new (or perhaps age-old) Russia. Warshaw and his bosses discovered the Kremlin and military authorities they’d regarded as protection from criminal elements were in fact indistinguishable from them. Everyone was so on-the-take that in just one year, the team’s fearsome general manager Valery Gushin (still quease-inducing in latter-day interviews here) reportedly skimmed more than $1 million in revenue from the Penguins. The Yanks were willing to put up with a certain amount of graft, but the situation both inside and outside the stadium soon spiraled out of control, sending the arrivistes scrambling back home.
In retrospect, amid a climate of kidnappings and assassinations, it’s amazing no one was killed — well, actually, a number of Russians were, as a hair-raising late recitation of premature deaths enumerates. The nation eventually stabilized somewhat from this very rough transitional period. But it’s not particularly reassuring to see Yeltsin’s failed regime replaced by Putin’s in the news footage here.
“Red Penguins” tells its story of outrageous, larger-than-life players in brisk, humorous fashion. Its assembly is always lively, aimed at engaging viewers with or without any interest in hockey. It’s a fun movie, if hardly a ringing endorsement for the wisdom of tying American interests to those of the Russia. The sensibilities seem fundamentally opposed — never more so than when the death’s-head-grinning Gushin fails to remember something the garrulous, open-book Warshaw recalls all too well. Or when the erstwhile general manager attempts an alarming imitation of innocent joviality, achieving an aspect that feels precisely as cheerful as a cement block attached to the feet of a stoolie.