Issue 55 (2017)
Aleksei Andrianov: The Warrior (Voin, 2015)
reviewed by Anna Nieman © 2017
The Warrior follows Roma and Slava Rodin, two estranged brothers preparing to face off in a mixed martial arts championship with $100,000, and perhaps their lives, at stake. Roma, the younger brother, is a Marine vet with a murky past; Slava is a family man desperately trying to raise money for his daughter’s heart surgery. Both have a difficult relationship with their father, Andrei, a former wrestling coach and recovering alcoholic, whom Roma enlists as his trainer.
To be clear, Warrior is not just a remake of Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior (2011); it adheres to the plot of the earlier film the way a local cover band slavishly replicates an original song. Indeed, after Warrior was released in Russia, the striking similarities between the films stirred controversy. While professional critics and incredulous YouTubers questioned the authenticity of the story, Fedor Bondarchuk, who had produced the film, dismissed any similarities between the American and the Russian Warriors as “superficial” and “accidental.” Voin, he insisted, is based on an original story, Taste For Blood, by American filmmaker David Frigerio, with multiple other cinematic influences thrown in for good measure: “It’s an experiment! A combustible mix!” In turn, Frigerio, in a series of tweets, expressed his doubts that any portion of his script was used in Warrior, adding that he was neither involved in the production nor credited for his writing. In the credits Il’ia Tilkin’s name stands alone as screenwriter for the film, while entire scenes and swaths of dialog have been directly lifted from the script by O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, and Cliff Dorfman.
The film’s creators’ main argument for the originality of their work rests on the claim that their film has “a different soul” (Bondarchuk), a “so much Russian soul” (Andrianov). Accordingly, the singularity of the film’s “soul” must reveal itself in the alterations that Andrianov makes to the plot as he transplants the rough-hewn Irish-Americans from Pittsburgh to the Baltic port of Kaliningrad. The assimilation effort begins with the names of the characters: the generically Irish Conlon becomes Rodin, as in rodina (motherland), combined with the first names of the brothers Slava (slava—glory) and Roma (Roman perhaps echoing the imperial Romanov?).
The film opens with a scene that seems to be spliced in from a different movie. Several Marines have been taken hostage by Somali pirates. In a bout of frantic fighting they are freed by another Marine. The shaking camera and the bright, oversaturated browns and yellows are reminiscent of The 9th Company (Deviataia rota, 2005),Bondarchuk’s blockbuster directorial debut. As all but one of the Marines escape the ship, the camera pulls back and pans over the waves. While the opening credits roll, the theme song by Dolphin, the father of Russian rap, sets the mood: “I need an enemy to achieve peace, so all that is senseless may be explained. [...] I need an enemy to live.” Soon the panning shot lands on Bondarchuk himself, whose face has been deeply lined and scarred for the role of Andrei Rodin, the alcoholic patriarch of the dysfunctional Rodin family. The Baltic Sea, where Rodin Sr. sails as a captain of a fishing boat may be far away from the warm waters preferred by the pirates, but as the continuous pan of the scene suggests, war has no boundaries and is ever-present.
His son’s approach to life recalls the theme song: Roma Rodin (Sergei Bondarchuk), seen earlier liberating his comrades from the pirates, is now back in his hometown after service in “hot spots.” Where or what those “spots” are is not explained, nor do we learn how and why the Marines were captured and why has Roma deserted his unit. While O’Connor uses the trauma of the Iraq war to build the analogous character of Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) and provide the film with historical context, Andrianov lets Roma’s military past go largely unexplained. Instead, the creators of Warrior appeal to the cinematic memory of their audience by visually referencing 9th Company, a successful and far more intense war movie, in the opening scene. Outside of the cinematic memories there is no legitimate, or officially acknowledged, military conflict to allow Roma to perform his heroic feat, so the pirates are a convenient stand-in for an enemy where there shouldn’t be one. Even so, Roma deserts a peacetime army. If he truly needs an enemy “to exist,” as the song goes, he has to look elsewhere: at home, in the ring, within his family.
The part of Brandon Conlon, the beloved physics teacher played in Warrior by Joel Edgerton, becomes Slava Rodin (Vladimir Iaglych), a tow-truck driver married to a stripper. The financial troubles that push Brandon into the ring—a looming foreclosure and overwhelming medical bills—ground the story in the realities of the Great Recession. The Rodin brothers’ harsh environment, with the shoreline of Kaliningrad providing an effective backdrop for training runs, yields few historical or regional specifics, but recalls the stereotypical settings of gritty American sports dramas from Rocky (1976) to Southpaw (2015). The junkyard where Slava works is deployed as a tool of (petty) revenge: Slava helps a street fighting insider crush a cheating wife’s car, and later himself gets back at a disrespectful strip-club patron by demolishing his luxury sedan. The obnoxious fellow is played by Vladimir Sychev, a character actor who from film to film reprises the same persona: a flamboyant small-time gangster wannabe. Perhaps aware, along with the audience, of Sychev’s on-screen reputation, Slava, to supplement the potency of the payback, knocks him out with one punch. If Slava seems to be somewhat on edge, he is not alone: Slava’s wife is acting detached and is easily irritated by her sick daughter; Roma is barely civil with their father; the shady wrestling promoter is stressed and constantly snaps at his assistant.
By contrast, O’Connor’s Warrior opens with a children’s birthday party and notably lacks a villain. In the MMA arena Tommy and Brandon fight worthy adversaries: in a humanizing subversion of a Rocky stereotype, the character of “the great Russian,” Koba, is loosely based on well-respected fighter Fedor Emelianenko and is played by Pittsburgh’s own Kurt Angle. The enemy is absent from Tommy’s war-zone exploits, as well: his comrade Mani is killed by friendly fire, and later Conlon saves a group of Marines who are trapped in a sinking tank. The conflict is contained entirely within the family, with the fighting legacy as both the force in the center of the conflict and the means to its resolution. Once the brothers exit the arena huddled in a hug, it is clear that they will not be back. Their goals have been achieved: they accept each other as family, and the family home, Brandon’s home, has been saved.
Within the same story outline, Andrianov populates his film with several unsavory characters from the aforementioned strip-club patron to the TV fame hungry promoter, to the menacing fighter Moskva. Meanwhile, Slava and his wife are on their own as they struggle to save their little girl Natasha. The stressed parents communicate in clipped and tense exchanges that often end with one of them walking away. Even while they share the same space, they tend to look past each other. The apartment that they consider selling to pay for their daughter’s heart transplant is small and sparsely lit—in contrast to the large and bright suburban American home of Brandon Conlon, its walls and tight spaces further dividing the two. The loss of such home can’t be too difficult to accept, and so it can’t serve as a sufficient sacrifice to preserve Natasha’s life.
With much of the conflict placed outside of the fraternal dyad, the family drama in Warrior is refocused from restoring the severed ties or saving the family home, to recovering the true North of the familial identity amidst the external adversity. The focal emotional point of both Warriors lies in the scene of a relapse that the father suffers before the decisive final fight. In O’Connor’s Warrior, during the binge, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), who listens to Moby Dick on tape as part of his recovery, screams: “Stop the ship! Ahab! You Godless son-of-a-bitch! You stop the ship, you Godless sonofabitch! [...] We are lost… lost…” O’Connor shoots the scene in harsh daylight, Paddy’s bloated face is wet and raw, Brandon seeing his father’s disease with unforgiving clarity. The scene is recreated in Andrianov’s Warrior almost exactly, but for the important omission of the Moby Dick references. Andrianov’s version is set in the evening; the artfully trashed room is dark, the father and the son backlit by the lone toppled table lamp. Rodin Sr. laments: “We’re lost, my boys... lost.” Absent the lofty metaphor and the power of Nick Nolte’s performance, the scene circles back to the fighting as an all encompassing state of being for the Rodins. The father’s lament references a life-threatening trauma Slava suffered as a child at the hand of his brother.
Wrestling in Andrianov’s Warrior is not the majestic but deadly beast that the brothers have to overcome together or the violent means to the noble end of saving one’s home, but a family trade that they have to return to in order to become a family again. Fighting is their natural state of being where “everything is clear again.” The implication here is that the arena will provide their existence with the means for validation. That’s where the brothers live the fullest, if not the most realistic existence, presented to the viewer in the oversaturated blues and oranges of a heavy-handed color grading.
The relationships between the characters, their participation in the narrative are shaped and represented through a variety of screens: TV and smart-phone. Slava’s first introduction to the world of underground wrestling comes via a phone video. In turn, a video of Roma’s triumphant sparring fight goes viral, lending him an invitation to the tournament and a patronage of a shady local promoter. The promoter, Kulikov (Aleksandr Baluev), is ready to do anything to break into national broadcasting. He revels in the attention of the camera, trying to grab as much airtime as he can. Kulikov is aiming for a national spotlight and it is only fitting that Russia’s Channel One is an integral player in the film not only as a promoted brand with significant screen presence, but as a plot device.
The importance of the fight is signified by its transmission over the country’s main TV channel. Television reporter Alisa (Ekaterina Mel’nikova) appears throughout the film; her interviews with the fighters and organizers frame the narrative and push it forward imbuing it with a staged dramatism of an MMA promo. Roma’s image as a war hero is established and defended through the interviews. His friend’s widow credits him with supporting her and her two children. The testament aimed at clearing Roma’s name is delivered by a surviving Marine sergeant in an interview with the ever-present Alisa. The broadcast then becomes the space of ultimate reality, where the victors and the losers will be determined both in and out of the arena. The brothers will persevere, on-air testimony from the sergeant apparently sufficient to absolve Roma. Kulikov will expose himself as a dishonest fraud and will be barred from MMA promoting. Slava’s wife will accept and support her husband after seeing his fights. Little Natasha will finally connect with her family thanks to a TV screen in the hospital. The televised MMA championship presumably can place the family story before a national audience providing some larger context, though Andrianov uses the device primarily to connect the events inside and outside the wrestling arena. At times it is difficult to discern the presumed TV footage from the events of the film. The director uses music much the same way—it hovers somewhere between diegetic and non-diegetic.
The rap music that plays while Slava is driving his truck must be coming over the radio: at one point he changes stations, but then in other scenes music continues as he exits the truck. However, it plays only as long has he needs to reach the door of his destination and stops as soon as the threshold is crossed—the soundtrack functioning as editor’s tape connecting two strips of film, or as a theme song for a wrestler entering the arena.
The championship victory elevates the family from the burden of the internal conflict to bestow hero status on both brothers. In the last scene, Andrei Rodin is training his granddaughter, whose heart transplant doesn’t seem to require any limitations on strenuous activity. Her family name—Rodina—emblazoned on the back of her sweatshirt. The familial identity quite literally becomes the national one as the Rodin ship sails on in search of the new enemies to infuse existence with meaning.
1] YouTube channel Bad Comedian conducted a satirical investigation into the remake controversy. The video includes footage of interviews with the crew and presentation of the film for a government funding bid.
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Warrior, Russia 2015
Color, 90 min
Director: Aleksei Andrianov
Producers: Dmitrii Rudovskii, Anton Zlatopolskii, Fedor Bondarchuk
Screenplay: Il’ia Tilkin
DoP: Vladislav Opeliants
Cast: Aleksandr Baluev, Fedor Bondarchuk, Sergei Bondarchuk, Batu Khaskov, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Ekaterina Mel’nik, Vladimir Sychev, Vladimir Iaglych
Aleksei Andrianov: The Warrior (Voin, 2015)
reviewed by Anna Nieman © 2017