Issue 29 (2010)
Pavel Sanaev: Hooked (Na igre) (Parts 1 and 2, 2009 and 2010)
reviewed by Volha Isakava © 2010
Hooked on a Game (Na igre) is the recent diptych blockbuster by Pavel Sanaev, the author of the best-selling novel Bury Me Behind the Baseboard (Pokhoronite menia za plintusom ), a semi-autobiographic memoir of his childhood in a famous Russian family of actors. The two parts, lasting about an hour and a half each, were released in November 2009 and April 2010. The film showed some blockbuster muscle: the second part shot to the 4th place in Russia during its opening weekend in April and the first film grossed modestly, but still over the budget—a box-office success for a Russian film. 
The film centers on six college buddies and a sidekick girlfriend in Nizhnii Novgorod. The friends are gamers and, having won a local championship, they receive game discs as prizes. Due to a malfunction, the game grants them superpowers: they can shoot, fight and drive in real life as well as they did virtually. The two main characters are Vampir (Sergei Chirkov), a loyal boy and team leader, and Doctor—or Doc— (Pavel Priluchnyi), who predictably turns out to be Vampir’s antagonist—a power-mongering child of rich parents who becomes a ruthless killer. The other three friends, Ian (Nodar Siradze), Dlinnyi (Tikhon Zhiznevskii) and Komar (Evgenii Kharlanov) play secondary roles and are well-suited for picking sides, so they become either traitors or loyal sidekicks. The last buddy, Maksim (Aleksei Bardukov), chooses his romantic interest, Lena, (Agniia Ditkovskite) over team projects and acts as a voice of reason for the group. But first Maksim gets in trouble with the local mafia, presumably from the Caucasus, and is rescued by his buddies who, in a long shooting sequence, fight a squad of mercenaries illegally transported through the gentile lands of Novgorod. Empowered by this incident, the team conjures up a plan to storm the local mafia headquarters so they can become racketeers for the mafiosi. At this point the cautious Maksim walks away from his friends, signaling a first break in their friendship. Their plan does not go as well as expected and the team is blackmailed and recruited by a mysterious organization, whose leader Boris Sergeevich (Viktor Verzhbitskii) flies an impressive if strange zeppelin over the vast Russian landscape. Initially duped by the organization that they will be serving as a special unit for the government, the team quickly realizes that they are being used by a wealthy oligarch who plans to develop and monopolize a new energy source. While on a mission to kill the wealthy local businessman Zaritsyn (Igor’ Skliar), Vampir realizes they have been scammed and orders everyone to withdraw. Doc takes over the mission, brutally killing the target along with a bus full of civilians. In the finale of the first film, which resembles another Russian criminal buddy blockbuster Bimmer (Bumer, dir. Petr Buslov, 2003) Dlinnyi is fatally wounded and dies, while Vampir’s girlfriend, Rita (Marina Petrenko), ends up in hospital.
The second part opens with a new configuration. Doc becomes the leader of the team, Vampir secretly plans to eliminate the superpower-inducing discs that become the target of the team’s new mission. Vampir’s plan fails and he barely manages to survive from the hands of his former gamer friends. He and Rita reunite and invent an elaborate lie to convince Maksim to join them in their attempt to storm the zeppelin and destroy the discs. At this point Komar also joins Vampir. The mission turns into a double-cross, because Doc, Komar and Ian actually used Vampir and his idealist ardor to set things right so they can escape with the discs and the cash to create their own deadly organization. Things go wrong: the characters squabble and shoot each other. In the end, the pragmatically-minded Ian shoots the berserk Doc and escapes without the discs along with Komar, while the wounded Maxim, Vampir and Rita are captured by the authorities as represented by Colonel Lebedev (Boris Tenin), who is either an undercover officer who has infiltrated the organization or a corrupt official working for it. Vampir serves time, and upon his release he is greeted by Rita and his young son, who ominously plays a videogame in the car.
The film is an action thriller (boevik) and borrows bits and pieces of dystopian science fiction (Gamer), superhero (Batman series), buddy heist film (Ocean’s 12) and coming-of-age genres, neatly tying them together in an unsophisticated story, fast-pace action and horrendous dialogue. If it sounds familiar, it is because all these ingredients are staples of any recent Hollywood genre movie, and the literary fame and obvious skill of the director did not contribute to the eloquence of his young heroes. They mostly converse in computer jargon and monosyllabic slang that is faithfully upheld in most “youth oriented pictures” of late (e.g. The Heat [Zhara, dir. Rezo Gigineishvili 2006]). For instance, a bedroom scene between the two young lovers shot in romantic soft golden hues ends with Vampir professing his love for Rita, saying: “When I saw you were not in the car, I thought I’d rip someone apart.” Such unfortunate choices of language govern other emotive expressions as well. The film is supposed to tackle the complexity of adolescent angst and superhero burden, but the characters fall far short of any emotional depth or self-expression as they progress through the murky waters of being tempted by power, doing the right thing and managing their superpowers while maintaining (or not) loyalty to each other.
The figure of Vampir is an obvious nod to Batman (not only because he wears a shirt with a bat on it); his main dilemma is that he wants to do right, but keeps justifying the means by the ends. He has a family history, but no “daddy issues” this time: his mother died because his working class father lost his job and could not afford an operation. Vampir and Maxim represent the idealist end of the superhero spectrum, sticking with their girlfriends and friendships for the most part. Doc is evil, crazy, and rich, as opposed to the working class Vampir. Tellingly, Doc’s car has an image of a joker-like figure on it. The most interesting characters are unfortunately the least developed ones: the lazy, mischievous and immature Dlinnyi and Komar, and the pragmatic, collected and cool-headed Ian. Their motivations and personalities receive hardly any attention. The evil oligarch’s zeppelin is a nod to James Bond in A View to a Kill (1985)where a villain with KGB connections flies in a zeppelin. Viktor Verzhbitskii (famous for his role of Zawulon in Day Watch and Night Watch) seems to be destined to play super-villains.
Occasionally the film remembers that it takes place in the Russian provinces, and that the boys theoretically live with their parents: the director shows us unrelated sequences of Maksim with his mother, some youthful Vegas-style entertainment in Novgorod and Moscow, and other things that make the landscape somewhat grounded in real-time geography and history. Moreover, the film caters for parents since it has a deep-seated moral: do not play video games, young people; they will make you forget what real life is like and devalue human existence! This overarching philosophy has both a satisfying feel of—“you can finally beat up that jerk next door” and the didactic component of “video games will not make you look cool.” Hence the title of the film echoes the Russian translation of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (Russian release title: Na igle), implying the serious connection between video game and drug addiction. Indeed, there is a certain fragility to the young heroes of Hooked. Their stuttering speech, inarticulate emotional life and perils of friendship are overshadowed by the powerhouse players that scheme and plot about new energy sources, glory and money, or overthrowing a government in Bolivia. It is that misfit in a harsh adult world illustrated by the game addiction that makes the characters vulnerable and sympathetic. They keep trying to figure out what they want to do with their superpowers, but fail to develop a successful plan. Doc’s demented vision of glory and power takes his life; for Vampir, maturity is reached through a prison term. It is the most mature buddy, Ian, who “digs” the grown-up world of gaining the upper hand and of assimilating the rules of profit and betrayal; of course, none of these skills come with the superpower experience. In a sense the young people exist in a bubble of video games as much as they exist in a bubble of adolescence, disconnected from real life and its real players: from what is a cold and cruel world out there. This is the closest the film comes to actually contemplating the reality of coming-of-age in contemporary Russia.
Overall, the film falls short of expectations of more profound issues. One of the reviewer’s online described Hooked as a “grown-up Hollywood-style” picture—and this is true. The film is a good concoction that goes down smoothly, mostly because of elegant editing and camera choices, a rich color scheme, well-thought through (if preposterous at times) storyline and thankfully less talking, more shooting, and awesome stunts. But this film also evoked a feeling of nostalgia for the days of idiosyncratic Russian blockbusters, which tried to fit in with Hollywood’s genre standards and always found themselves in the “same but not quite” zone. Films like Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) and Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006, both dir. by Timur Bekmambetov) that are a symptomatic and complex reflection of contemporary Russia and its cinema as much as they are mass-entertainment genre vehicles. This almost leaves this reviewer in want of more of the decadent Russian nouveau-riches vampires fighting earnest Soviet vampires in a post-Soviet landscape, chasing the elusive genre formula. Unlike the polished and well-played Hooked, these quirky films at least give the critic a thrill.
University of Alberta
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4] For the cultural significance of Night Watch and Day Watch, including Soviet/post-Soviet allusions and appropriations of Hollywood, see the collection of critical essays Dozor kak symptom, St Petersburg: Falanster/Seans, 2006. Excerpts online.
Hooked. Russian Federation, 2009.
Color, 97 minutes.
Hooked on a Game 2: A New Level. Russian Federation, 2010.
Color, 86 minutes.
Director: Pavel Sanaev
Script: Pavel Sanaev, Aleksandr Chubar’ian
Based on the novel by Aleksandr Chubar’ian Games in Life [Igry v zhizn’]
Producers: Leonid Ogorodnikov, Oleg Andreev, Eduard Berman, Amir Galliamov, Igor Renich.
Production: Karovan Productions
Cinematography: Vladislav Gurchin
Art direction: Vladmir Namestnikov
Music: Ivan Burliaev, Sergei Dudakov
Editing: Tatiana Finkovskaia, Dmitrii Slobtsov
Cast: Sergei Chirkov, Marina Petrenko, Pavel Priluchnyi, Evgenii Kharlanov, Tikhon Zhiznevskii, Nodar Siradze, Aleksei Bardukov, Agniia Ditkovskite, Viktor Verzhbitskii, Boris Tenin, Igor’ Skliar, Mikhail Gorevoi, Mikhail Trukhin, Anton Semkin, Aleksandr Lykov, Sergei Gazarov, Dmitrii Martynov
Pavel Sanaev: Hooked (Na igre) (Parts 1 and 2, 2009 and 2010)
reviewed by Volha Isakava © 2010