Issue 25 (2009)
Mikhail Porechenkov: D-Day (Den' D 2008)
reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2009
Few people spend much time nowadays pondering the jingoistic American action movies of the 1980s, featuring the absurdly impossible military exploits of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris carried out in the service of a vague, glib, and usually reactionary political agenda. The message was simplistic, direct, and brutal. This was after all, Reagan's America. They were watched, and presumably enjoyed, by millions at the time, and generally panned by critics who toted up the body counts and sadistic violence as some kind of gauge both of contemporary American culture and of the moral vapidity of the exercise. In D-Day, directors Ekaterina Pobedinskaia and Mikhail Porechenkov still see some life in the old genre yet.
Porechenkov, Russia's own “Muscles from Moscow,” also produced the film and stars as Ivan. D-Day is a rehash of Schwarzenegger's 1985 movie, Commando, reprising the plot of a retired special forces operative living with his daughter in splendid isolation in the mountains, only to be called back into action as members of his former unit are being assassinated one after the other by unidentified assailants. Porechenkov shifts the action to the Vladivostok region and makes the main bad guy a Russophile Estonian who believes that, while Europe has abandoned Estonia, Russia is its true ally. Now, outraged and shamed by the Estonian government's decision to move a Soviet war monument to a less visible spot in Tallinn,  the villain kidnaps our hero's daughter (Zhenia, played by his real-life daughter, Varvara) and tells Ivan to kill the Estonian President if he wants to see her alive again. In some alternative universe where these kinds of things make sense, our evildoer will then be able to become the new Estonian President and restore Estonian national pride or something along those lines. The plot is largely irrelevant, of course, and is but the barest window-dressing for the mayhem that will ensue. True to the genre, Ivan kills most of the movie's protagonists except for the Estonian President.
Setting aside for a moment the issue of whether the world needs a remake of Commando in the first place, D-Day restages key scenes from the original almost to the point of homage. D-Day also recalls “iconic” action scenes familiar from any number of movies in this genre, including Rambo: First Blood (1982) and Missing in Action (1984). There may even be intentional nods to a comic fight scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); to the facial grimacing of the crazies in Mad Max (1979); and to the karate posturing of the early Jean-Claude van Damme movies. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given its paean to a genre, D-Day gives the viewer the sensation of having already seen many of the scenes in other movies.
While the original Commando was profligate in its violence and more modest in its humor (at least intentional humor), D-Day is slightly more modest in its body count and more intentional with its humor. At one point, it appears to offer some ironic distance, when Ivan, seeing his daughter watching a violent scene from Tarkovskii's Solaris on television, tells his daughter that it is just a movie, not real life. This is not to say that most of the tropes and clichés of the action genre are not firmly in harness in D-Day: the cartoon violence, though more soft-core here than in the original; the macho, sexist asides and leering double-entendres; the timely acquisition of a military arsenal capable of toppling a small state; the interminable countdowns at crucial junctures in the plot; and of course the walking backwards into danger. Also present are the requisite stereotypes and caricatures: the invulnerable and omniscient hero; the kidnapped belle-turned-accomplice (Aliia) and engagingly unprofessional sidekick, contrived into cocktail dress and high-heels, and lovingly accessorized with heavy weaponry; the coked-up, wise-cracking, oversexed (here essentially harmless) psychopath destined for the inevitable—and literal—fall at the hands of Ivan; his nemesis ultimately meeting a fittingly violent end in the movie's final scenes.
At least for this reviewer, one of the more troubling aspects of these very violent early action movies was precisely the recourse to “humorous” quips, often at the most sadistic moments in the action. This has of course been a motif of the less explicitly violent James Bond movies since the 1960s, although, interestingly, as the violence in the more recent Bond movies has become more graphic, the comic asides have disappeared. This intrusion of “humor” always seemed a directorial sleight-of-hand to me, attempting to make the extreme violence more palatable. D-Day has amplified this aspect, making it a motif throughout the movie, accompanying the violence with a wink and nod at the audience. The result is a curious mix of genres: the 1980s violent action flick and the more recent wacky buddy comedy. Ivan and Aliia are the odd couple, muscles and miniskirt catering to the adolescent audience who presumably would watch this movie. Brangelina never looked this contrived in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005).
If we err on the side of generosity, the mercifully short (81-minute) D-Day might be viewed as a parody of this genre. Some sequences are clearly tongue-in-cheek, as for example when the psychopath ingests multiple narcotics while driving (erratically) from the airport, to the kind of pounding Russian soundtrack that has become de rigueur in contemporary Russian movies. The second-tier henchmen are all incompetent bumblers. The glowering looks of the Estonian bad guy are more reminiscent of Bob Newhart than Stephen Berkoff. The final WWF-style fight scene ends up in a large vat of caviar, surely a first for this genre? But is this parody—if that is what it is—necessary? This genre had already degenerated into self-referentiality and self-parody by the late 1980s, and by the 1990s it was being eviscerated openly in comedies like Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993). The genre even flirted with a postmodern self-examination of sorts in movies like Schwarzenegger's film-within-a-film Last Action Hero (1993). More recently, it has been far more cleverly parodied in the recurring Schwarzeneggeresque cartoon character of Rainier Wolfcastle in The Simpsons TV series.
Rendered by self-parody and parody into their constituent clichés and caricatures, the 1980s action movies were revealed for what they were, adolescent male fantasies of America vigilante justice, a reengagement—and at least partial redemption—of past military defeats. Might D-Day then be viewed as a witting or unwitting commentary on Putin's Morning-in-Russia, a redemption (or criticism) of recent military defeats or a paean to (or caution against) the new Russian nationalism? We may be reading too much into D-Day. It may just be a blunt attempt to cater to fantasies, this time those of Russian adolescents. If parody exists in this reprise, it is primitive at best. Locked into replicating the conventions of the genre, D-Day straitjackets its actors with clunky dialog, wooden acting, and a washed-out cinematic look. Even the outtakes during the movie's credits look staged. It is tempting when writing about poor remakes to refer the viewer back to the original, but that would be unusually cruel advice. Save yourself the effort of watching the movie, just read the review. Or better yet, skip the review.
Frederick C. Corney
The College of William & Mary
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1] Stuart Burch and David J. Smith, "Empty Spaces and the Value of Symbols: Estonia's 'War of Monuments' from Another Angle ("Swedish Lion" Monument at Narva)," Europe-Asia Studies 59.6 (2007): 913-936.
D-Day Russia, 2008
Color, 81 minutes
Director: Ekaterina Pobedinskaia, Mikhail Porechenkov
Scriptwriters: Presniakov Brothers
Cinematography: Vadim Alisov, Vadim Gomerbakh
Production design: Mavlodot Farosatshoev
Music: Sergei Shnurov
Sound: Leonid Veitkov
Editing: Sergei Bidenko, Vladimir Markov
Cast: Mikhail Porechenkov, Aleksandra Ursuliak, Mikhail Trukhin, Varvara Porechenkova, Maksim Drozd, Viktor Verzhbitskii
Executive Producer: Sergei Rozhkov
Production: Kinokompaniia VVP Al'ians
Mikhail Porechenkov: D-Day (Den' D 2008)
reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2009