War (aka Vojna, 2005) Movie Review

Did you know that some Russian movies have an unseen voice simultaneously translate non-Russian dialogue into Russian? Of the two Russian films I’ve seen, this has been the case. It not only makes hearing the English dialogue somewhat impossible, but the whole thing feels more than a little strange.

“War” is set around the ongoing civil war between the Russian Federation and Chechnya, and was written and directed by Aleksei Balabanov, known for the “Brat” series. As with “Brat 2”, “War” is a movie about violence and violent men, but the execution brings to mind words like “nonchalant” and “distant”. “War” stars Aleksei Chadov as Ivan, a Russian soldier being held prisoner by Aslan (Giorgi Gurgulia), one of many Chechen rebel leaders. Also held prisoner are British troupe actors John (Ian Kelly) and Margaret (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) and a Russian Captain with extensive bodily injuries. The Captain is played by Sergei Bodrov Jr., who starred in the “Brat” series. In short, Ivan and John are released with promise to return with the ransom for Margaret. But unable to raise the needed funds, John and Ivan returns to Chechnya on a suicidal covert mission.

Watching “War”, one can’t help but think of this phrase: “Man, the Russians sure don’t make action films like everyone else.” Like “Brat 2”, there’s an odd, even distant, feeling to watching the violence play out in “War”, which opens with an intense 30-minute sequence in Aslan’s countryside base. The treatment of the prisoners by their Muslim captors is brutal, and getting beaten by young Chechens on a daily basis is the best one can hope for.

The above sequence is immediately contrasted with the by-the-numbers reaction of the Russians and their Government, which treats the Chechen situation as if it was a minor affair and not a full-blown war. As Aslan points out to Ivan, the Chechens are fighting for their homeland, whereas the Russian soldiers don’t even know why they’re fighting at all. And in fact one of the movie’s motifs has soldiers asking each other how long their tour of duty will last. This isn’t their war, and they don’t want to fight it. The same isn’t true for the Muslim Chechens.

Besides the fact that Ian Kelly makes a terrible soldier, one can’t shake the feeling that Balabanov is once again treading on unfamiliar grounds. As was the case with Balabanov’s portrayal of African-Americans in “Brat 2”, the Brits fare no better here. The John character embodies all the stereotypes one associates with “being British”. Which is to say, John is generally helpless, completely incapable, and it’s a Herculean task by the young soldier Ivan just to keep the Brit from accidentally shooting himself.

As the lead, Aleksei Chadov offers a convincing anti-hero. He’s a quiet man who is nevertheless capable of immense violence when the need arises. A scene where Ivan calmly tosses a dead woman’s body into a river after she is caught in a bloody crossfire is particularly chilling. The film is really a drama for its first hour, and it’s only when Ivan and John returns into Chechen territory that the shooting begins. Like Sergei Bodrov Jr. in “Brat 2”, Chadov has neither the build, the face, nor the presence for an action hero. But as the anti-hero, he’s complex and resourceful, and perfect for the job.

“War” probably has a lot to say about the Russian-Chechnya civil war, but I don’t know enough about the situation to get everything. Native Russians will no doubt get more out of the movie, but as a foreigner, I am like John — dismayed at the cruelty being inflicted, and not sure if I really want to understand.

Aleksei Balabanov (director) / Aleksei Balabanov (screenplay)
CAST: Aleksei Chadov …. Ivan Yermakov
Ian Kelly …. John
Sergei Bodrov Jr. …. Captain Medvedev
Ingeborga Dapkunaite …. Margaret
Evklid Kyurdzidis …. Ruslan

Buy War on DVD