Issue 34 (2011)
Iurii Korolev: Slove (Slove: Priamo v serdtse, 2011)
reviewed by Daniel H. Wild © 2011
Slove, the debut film by writer, producer, and director Iurii Korolev, who for this film’s release is billed by the Nordic-Teutonic moniker Jürgen Staal, is an interesting mélange of international B-movie action clichés in service of a specific reconfiguration of Russian masculinity.
A brief opening sequence shows a tranquil domestic setting, in which three young brothers are huddled on pillows in their living room while they are being trained by a stern father in the art of perseverance and concentration required by long-distance snipers. These brothers are Grisha, Sergei and Aleksei Ronin, who grow up to become soldiers in an elite Border Guard unit. In an intense firefight with Central Asian drug smugglers, Grisha is killed. Having been dismissed for disobeying orders during the skirmish, Sergei becomes a police captain in the St. Petersburg police force. “Zorro,” as Sergei now calls himself, has his own particular rogue way of policing, which does not endear him to his superiors.
On a furlough from his Border Guard unit, Aleksei visits his brother Sergei. He assists his brother in a mission to arrest a second-rate Mexican drugs and casino gangster, who is attempting to muscle into the local market after failing to branch out into US territory. Aleksei attracts the attention of two powerful officers in the Ministry of the Interior, Colonel Savelii Kotov and his high-ranking bespectacled adjutant Ludwig Karlovich Wingen. They offer him a position as a sniper for the Ministry, so that he can continue his job of killing people in the “civilian world” for the sake of justice. Aleksei has doubts because his task would be “too obscure”—there are no clear-cut enemies and he does not consider himself “entitled to determine their fates.” How, he asks the Colonel, would they be “different from the bandits” if he shoots them without trial?
Kotov, however, knows how to manipulate Aleksei’s ethical reservations to his advantage and secretly instigates the release of the Mexican gangster. In the face of such an obvious travesty of justice, Sergei questions his chosen profession and Aleksei changes his mind, now convinced that his services as an assassin for the Ministry are necessary. Aleksei is given a call sign “Slove” (rhymes with “love” and pronounced “Slav”), apparently an invented portmanteau contraction of the English phrase “soldier of love.”
Following orders by Ludwig, Aleksei turns the urban environment into his own combat zone as he metes out justice with bullets exiting his sniper rifle in slow motion and extreme close-up, twirling to reveal his signature “Slove” carved onto them. After one of his successful operations, he meets and falls in love with Karina, a Russian-German dancer, whom he charms with an improvised riff on Bentley luxury vehicles and down-home borscht cooking.
Ludwig accompanies Aleksei and Karina to a Moscow night club, where he intimidates a business man turned money launderer as Aleksei stealthily shoots the tycoon’s body guards amidst the throng of patrons on the dance floor. Karina is left in the dark about the real purpose of their visit to the club. All the while, Ludwig and Kotov’s paramount target has been an Albino gangster nicknamed “the Vampire.”
Aleksei is ordered to shoot the occupants of a car convoy, but at the last minute his mission is changed and he is asked to keep the target, a Duma representative, alive and kidnap him instead. Aleksei’s dangerous high-speed pursuit of the politician’s car is captured on a road safety video camera and broadcast on TV, which reveals to Karina what he does for a living. Despite Aleksei’s protestations that his only targets are bandits, Karina is devastated and wants to end their relationship because he kills “living people”—people, that is, with hopes, dreams, and ambitions.
Ludwig tortures the kidnapped Duma politician, whose election campaign was financed by the Vampire, in order to find out his whereabouts. For the sake of Karina, Aleksei wants to quit his profession but his pangs of conscience are ridiculed by Ludwig and Kotov as “half-baked Tolstoyan, Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi” sentimentalities and he is forced to infiltrate the Vampire’s compound as his final mission. Aleksei manages to reach the Vampire in his mansion, but a dying Vampire reveals to him that he has been manipulated into killing the enemies and rivals of Kotov, whose real ambition is to seize control of the Vampire’s criminal organization and ascend to the kingpin position. Aleksei realizes that his vision of an extralegal contribution to justice has been perverted in the service of a criminal personal vendetta all along.
As special forces storm their apartment, Aleksei and Sergei embark on a revenge mission by assassinating a number of corrupt Interior Ministry officials. Ludwig kidnaps Karina and when Aleksei confronts him, Ludwig informs him that Karina is pregnant with his child. In a struggle, Aleksei kills Ludwig, tells Karina to flee, and manages to kill Kotov by detonating a bomb from afar. A coda shows a veritable circus of television news coverage and talk show discussions following in the wake of the two brothers’ operation. Sergei is taken to court for his actions and a Presidential investigation is announced, but the body of Aleksei, who is assumed to have been killed in the explosion, is nowhere to be found. Aleksei takes off in a private jet, with his mind once again turning to the cherished memory of the first encounter of Karina.
The film’s most interesting moments are captured in these recurring sequences of memory because they portray Aleksei’s passionate longing for Karina and actively work against his ostensible skills as a detached long-range assassin. The film frequently returns to these interludes in which Karina is enshrined in white light as she sits in a café along the banks of the Neva River. Aleksei’s vision here is not an act of active surveillance, the scoping out of a sniper’s range, but rather the moment in which he beholds her beauty and is mesmerized. This shift in perspective undermines the concept of the sniper’s scope and is indicative of its uneven style. In fact, it is easy to dismiss the film’s qualities on a formal level or find fault with its narrative chicanery. A minimally humorous sequence with inept traffic inspectors clocking a high-speed car chase at 193 kilometers an hour is replayed as a television news item because the chase was recorded (and, apparently edited) by a traffic surveillance camera. The brothers’ teenage sister Svetlana is so wrapped up in the world of first-person shooter video games that she remains oblivious to a real raid that is unfolding around her. The film’s hectic editing and excessive use of quick jump cuts only very occasionally results in the kind of well-orchestrated rhythms of kinetic action sequences.
But this lack of balance also points to something more profound here. The sniper as a cinematic trope always plays with asymmetrical notions of power, so the most powerful films of the genre intensify this notion to dramatic effect. In this respect, Slove attempts to align itself with these questions of scale and distance. In films such as Full Metal Jacket (dir. Stanley Kubrick, USA 1987), the lethal enemy is revealed to be a teenage Vietcong girl, while Enemy at the Gates (dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud, USA 2001) re-imagines the World-War II battle of Stalingrad between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht as a mental duel of wills between two equally skilled marksmen. In the exemplary Hollywood sniper film Shooter (dir. Antoine Fuqua, USA 2007), the final sequence involves one of the most impressive scenarios for a sniper showdown because it displaces the urban context that determines a sniper’s vantage point and levels it as a confrontation in a barren high-altitude terrain across empty, snow-covered mountain ranges.
Slove, however, locates such a power struggle in the interior conflict around notions of masculinity. While other recent Russian films have also marshaled the figure of the sniper as a way to discuss gender in times of conflict, it is indicative of the film’s slipshod approach that none of these ramifications are explored but rather merely postulated as a narrative quandary in the figure of the sniper. A much more interesting dimension of the power of asymmetrical warfare has already been reconfigured in popular culture via the possibilities of geospatial technologies such as Google Earth. Likewise, the lore surrounding insurgent videos from the Iraq war posted on YouTube, which ostensibly show detonations of IEDs against helpless American troops, inverts the power modality of a war machine that relies on drone technology and surgical strikes from afar by deploying the very specter of distance against itself.
Instead, by emphasizing the ethical humanism that guides both Karina and Aleksei, the film invokes the familiar “gloves-come-off” arguments and the dismissal of the Geneva Conventions as quaint “Marquess of Queensberry rules”  that have served to justify the global war on terror over the last decade by subsuming it within the narrative as a universal issue of the corruption of power. This shift is certainly noteworthy in contemporary Russian cinema because of the usual insistence on a clear-eyed Russian exceptionalism in such matters. Whereas a film like Aleksei Balabanov’s War (Voina, 2002) quickly dispatches with all weak-kneed Western understandings of human rights, Slove rather postulates the presence of such a dilemma as part of a global normality, in which issues of corruption and obedience are inevitable aspects of seemingly universal reality.
The film’s most intriguing notion thus hovers between a global popular imagination and the specificity of a predetermined national culture. Much like the film director’s international-sounding name and the film’s invented Anglo-Saxon title, its cinematic allegiance is ostensibly with Western commercial entertainment. Slove seems to place itself firmly in the realm of the international action movie, where the protagonists’ last name “Ronin” echoes the ethos of the Japanese warrior culture and a bullet moving in slow motion between the thighs of female dancers evokes a James Bond credit sequence.
And yet the personification of such an internationalized composite is Ludwig, the soft-spoken but ruthless functionary. Ludwig is a sober technocrat who drinks mineral water and regards it as essential to know as many “coding systems for human communication” as possible because this knowledge “enhances one’s worldview.” He pontificates about the poetry of assassination operations and philosophizes about Kant’s moral law versus subjective judgment. With his Germanic character traits he is the fictional Soviet superspy Max Otto von Stirlitz re-imagined as a Putin-era Silovik. This, then, aligns his counterpart, the handsome, crowd-pleasing actor Aleksei Chadov who plays Aleksei, with the character in Brother (Brat, Aleksei Balabanov, 1997), another film in which a younger brother returns home to St. Petersburg and must become an assassin by relying on his own innate sense of ingenuity and integrity. Slove can therefore be understood as the confused—that is, Westernized—attempt to return to the impact that Balabanov’s modern Russian classic still summons up.
Daniel H. Wild
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1] See, for example, Caucasian Roulette (Kavkazskaia ruletka, Fedor Popov, 2002)
3] A useful instance of such a line of argument against what is often termed “political correctness” can be found in the Kinokultura review of Balabanov’s film here.
Slove, Russia/Germany 2011
Color, 84 min
Director and Scriptwriter: Iurii Korolev
Cinematography: Aleksandr Kuznetsov
Production Design: Viktor Drozdov
Cast: Aleksei Chadov, Karina Khidekel, Andrei Chadov, Sergei Iushkevich, Igor’ Zhizhinkin, Oleg Sheremet
Production: Iurii Korolev, Aleksei Podsokhin, Marina Borisovskaia
Iurii Korolev: Slove (Slove: Priamo v serdtse, 2011)
reviewed by Daniel H. Wild © 2011