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Evgenii Lavrent'ev, Countdown [Lichnyi nomer] (2004)

reviewed by David MacFadyen©2005


Terrorists from the group “Ansar Allah” have announced a Holy War against civilization. They have a plan to turn Rome, the Eternal City, into a city of eternal death. Yet the world will be saved by the courage and heroism of Agent Smolin, by the selflessness and professionalism of [American journalist] Catherine Stone, and the strength of spirit within Umar the Chechen. Helped by the joint action of Russian and Western Special Forces, all captives will be freed and the world saved from the threat of a monstrous act of terrorism… This film is full of unique special effects, never before seen in world cinema; they will keep the viewer in suspense from the opening credits to the final scene. (From promotional materials)

As Russian cinema muscles its way towards Western notions of cinematic success, the term “blockbuster” has started to appear in blurbs, interviews and reviews, most noticeably regarding Night Watch (dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2004) and Countdown. Both films, say their makers and fans, construct big, bold narratives according to the scale and standards of Hollywood.[1] They have covered their production costs with domestic ticket sales and drawn more money than simultaneous US releases in Russia, at least initially. 

Yet the expression “blockbuster” hides a less positive significance. As a term designated during World War Two for bombs large enough to level entire blocks of urban housing, it was subsequently adopted by post-war realtors to describe an insidious, yet no less loathsome process. If the ethnic (that is, White) composition of a city block could be “busted” by getting some non-White minorities to purchase a property or two, the average housing price would quickly fall, leaving rich pickings for predatory agents as squeamish White owners quickly sold up, often at a loss, and moved to less diverse areas of town. 

                           

A celebratory term, often used to denote a constructive, successful originality, is thus equally redolent of conflict, destruction, and avarice. Over and above the trumpeting of this movie’s new, unheard-of budgetary scale, the most commonly published facts and figures surrounding Countdown concern how much stuff was blown up. Perhaps this is what meant by “special effects, never before seen”? In a most satisfyingly Slavic way, the special effects on offer aren’t actually that “special,” that is, virtual, since 150 kilograms of TNT were employed here not to imitate exploding vehicles, but to detonate them in actuality. One helicopter, six armored cars, two trucks, and sixteen cars are destroyed over the course of 105 minutes; a small cost for saving the world, it must be said. 

The two main areas in which Countdown lays claim to being a blockbuster are, therefore, financial and thematic. Both of these are then designed to fuel a third element of grandeur, a “new” sense of pride and self-definition as per President Putin’s rhetoric. This movie was generously funded by state coffers (10% of its $7 million budget) and many newspapers reported that initial, closed screenings of the film were made to both President Putin and Nikolai Patrushev, head of the FSB. They both liked it very much. Aleksei Makarov, who plays the film’s hero, Agent Aleksei Smolin, said that the movie was meant to earn new respect for the FSB, the army, and the police. These upright, uniformed figures “give us something to be proud of.” Promotional phrasing from the distributor, Top Line, often echoed the same thinking.

The resulting, key dilemma on this issue of theme, is whether Countdown does or does not wish to be seen as original; that is, whether it draws happily and overtly upon Western models, such as Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988), or is perhaps more intent upon forging a path into new, yet equally noisy territory. The answer is most evident in the film’s last twenty seconds. As a final, sweeping aerial scene fades to black, replete with executive aircraft and billowing clouds, the following text appears before us:

This story is based upon real events: the life of Russian SAS officer Aleksei Galkin. After being imprisoned by Chechens, he continued his army service and was awarded the medal “Hero of Russia.” Today, together with Galkin, each and every one of us continues the battle with terrorism. A battle we must win!

Though it is often possible to forgive Russian drama its patriotic bent of late by reminding ourselves of similar flag-waving in American TV and cinema, these three sentences go far beyond the pale. As a result, what appears to be a very straightforward, knockabout action film suddenly and most willingly ushers in a crowd of ugly bystanders, shuffling in grey suits on the edge of the film set. 

The finger-wagging of this audience-oriented riposte might remind us of similar closing generalizations from other adventure stories, like Nikolai Lebedev’s Star (Zvezda, 2002). Both movies draw upon the dignity of past battle in the name of another, more recent “conflict”; both hope to take a past patriotism and reinstate it. The closing lines of Star conclude the tragic bravery of army scouts, sacrificing their lives in 1944 near the Polish border in order to send a radio message to HQ―and thus avert a potentially devastating counterattack from several armored divisions of the German army:

Only in 1964 were the scouts of the Soviet army awarded the Order of the Patriotic War: First Degree (Posthumous). And today, each spring in May, the souls of the fallen strive once more to reach the blossoming fields of their homeland from Polish, Czech, and German grassland. They strive to reach the nation for which they gave their lives.

In Countdown, the cost and pathos of a concrete military invasion have been conflated with—that is, replaced by—the demonized, undemanding scapegoat of “international terrorism.” Given the obvious use of physical, armed conflict as one way of making the themes of Fascism and militant “Islam” look similar, there then emerges the issue of which style to adopt, since stories of anger per se are unlikely to sell many tickets. 

When Star was reviewed on the pages of Variety, some of its patriotic spectacle was attributed to plagiarism from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Jurassic Park (1993),[2] even though most of the special effects were direct visualizations of phrasing in the base-text, Èmannuil Kazakevich’s 1946 story.[3] Something Soviet and something Californian walked hand in hand, to both political and fiscal benefit. They recognized each other, yet remained distinct.

Countdown, however, is much more a tale of increased sameness, of homogenization. Middle Eastern terrorists, for example, are shown duping Chechen rebels, so that viewers may lump all anti-state terrorisms into one basket, dismissed tidily as the product of an angry Islam―and, thus, fall into the comforting arms of contemporary politicking, which allows Bush to announce that all terrorists or their ideologies simply “hate freedom.” Apparently it’s that simple. So everybody can agree.

Not only does this film embody a woeful number of policy-driven, American stereotypes in its attempts to be purportedly different, but given the state funds with which it was made, it also spends too much time reflecting Putin’s career or plans within the G8. Countdown uses London as the home for an émigré arch-enemy Pokrovskii (that is, Boris Berezovskii), scheming with ill-gotten gains from his well-funded hideout. Neither Pokrovskii nor the Chechen rebels, shown in an awfully manipulative reworking of the Dubrovka and Beslan tragedies, is the real enemy, however. Though both oligarchs and rebels lie beyond the Russian mainland, the real problem is thankfully dressed up as a Bin Laden look-alike, just in case we missed the point. [4]

These “Arabs,” using a Moscow circus siege to keep the FSB busy, plan to fly a container of plutonium over Rome, during the G8, and explode it, creating a dirty bomb of epic proportions. If the plane flies below 3,000 meters, it will detonate, thus repeating the dramatic tension of Speed (dir. Jan de Bont, 1994). Putin’s words and shady off-screen presence, employed on at least three occasions in the film, make it clear that the cargo plane will not be allowed to leave Russian airspace. Despite overt references to the risk of a “second Chernobyl” in the screenplay, the idea of destroying the people of Russia and Belarus to save Italians and a handful of foreign dignitaries does not appear to trouble anybody. Similar self-sacrifice is perhaps supposed to hark back to archetypes à la Star, but it smells very different. The Daily Telegraph last year quoted a Top Line executive as saying that Countdown was supposed to show “Russia as a country that’s ready to become a part of Europe.” [5] If a plutonium shower is the price of membership, I’d consider joining a different club.

This film yearns in many directions, each of which moves further from anything that feels like home. And yet Evgenii Lavrent'ev keeps searching elsewhere, to absent periods and places, as the newspaper Rossiiskaia gazeta explained: “He’s intent on creating a legend; a true legend based even upon the acts of real people, yet one capable of becoming national folklore.”[6] Another newspaper tried to flesh out this portrait and its potential as object of national desire: 

In distinction from American superheroes, the hero Makarov does not have an athletic build, nor is he a great ladies’ man. He doesn’t utter high-flown speeches, nor does he stoop to aphoristic witticisms like “Hasta la vista, baby!” He’s a simple man, who acts in given situations according to his own code of honor. He’s distinguished by his free and creative thought processes, together with his professionalism. He’s blessed with a classic Russian sense of humor; he’s kind-hearted and charming in his own, slightly clumsy way. [7]

That all sounds very admirable and, indeed, Makarov’s potential as a future serial hero seems considerable. Recent squabbling over how to portray the figure of detective Fandorin in adaptations of Boris Akunin’s stories seems adequate testament to the desire and/or need for a new national champion. Films such as The Bourne Supremacy (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2004) have floundered in Russian cinemas, precisely because their depiction of Russians is less than flattering. What remains troubling, though, is not who Makarov’s hero is (physically or emotionally), but what he is doing and for whom. The same can be said of this film as a whole. One of its producers, Sergei Gribkov, defined the goal of Countdown as the depiction of “both external and internal terrorism. People must see even those things that might be uncomfortable for them to think about.”[8] If the complexities of international terrorism are boiled down to a simple opposition of good and bad, there’s no real problem; heaven knows that James Bond hardly did justice to geopolitical intricacy in the past. When, however, a government starts funding “blockbu$ters” and is then pampered early on with its own closed screenings (no doubt of editorial consequence), one starts to feel uneasy. 

The rather angry, binary presentation of Gribkov’s “uncomfortable truth” seems less like entertainment and more like the militaristic rant of Jack Nicholson in the closing scenes of A Few Good Men (dir. Rob Reiner, 1992). Countdown knows very clearly what it wants to say, and does so with force in its closing on-screen text. What it does not know, however, is to whom it speaks, whether to Western, domestic, or governmental audiences, and therefore the issue of how becomes muddled. Countdown in its casting, for example, makes a few strange nods in the direction of more liberal, Western motifs, such as a savvy, rugged female journalist (Louise Lombard) or a high-ranking Black dignitary (John Amos), yet both these stereotypes look very misplaced on a Russian screen.

Likewise, although this thunderous, polished movie aspires to the label of “blockbuster,” it involves too much self-erasure in doing so. In attempting to embody the modern significance of blockbuster as success, size, and generic novelty, Countdown slips further away from home (today). It yearns for a past ethos and foreign policy. There is so much pandering and so little self-respect in this film, in fact, that the older meaning of blockbuster comes to mind again, together with the type of “blackface” that once marked Gogol'’s own sad self-deprecation in the name of entertaining a purportedly greater audience. [9] Silly though it sounds, in visual or social terms, that logic leads us back to the pitiful self-mockery of perhaps the quintessential blockbusting, real-estate comedy, The Jeffersons (CBS, 1975-1985). “Moving on up” won’t be easy, but it would be nice to do it with self-respect, rather than epigonism. 

David MacFadyen, University of California, Los Angeles


Countdown, Russia, 2004
Color, 105 minutes
Director: Evgenii Lavrent'ev
Screenplay: Iurii Sagaidak, Evgenii Lavrent'ev
Cinematography: Stanislav Radvanski, Dmitrii Shlykov
Art Director: Vladimir Trapeznikov
Soundtrack: Sergei Shnurov
Starring: Aleksei Makarov, Louise Lombard, Viacheslav Razbegaev, Iurii Tsurilo, Viktor Verzhbitskii, Ramil' Sabitov, Egor Pazenko, John Amos
Producers: Iurii Sagaidak, Sergei Gribkov, Vladimir Truschenkov
Production: Topline Production, Sibneft Co., Channel ORT


Endnotes

1] On the competition in distribution and income figures between the two films, see: “V prokat vyshel novyi otechestvennyi blokbaster,” News.ru (15 December 2004) and T. Khoroshilova,  “Marshevyi perelom,” Rossiiskaia gazeta (3 December 2004).
2] E. Cockrell, “Zvezda / The Star,” Variety (July 22 2002).
3] Kazakevich, È. “Zvezda.” Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh (vol. 1), Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura (1963).
4] On this issue, see E. Barabash, “Kino i gosudarstvo: Kto kogo imeet,” Nezavisimaia gazeta (24 December 2004).
5] Daily Telegraph (19 July 2004).
6] V. Kichin, “Il-76 do Rima ne doletit,” Rossiiskaia gazeta (9 December 2004).
7] A. Primachenko, “Vash ‘lichnyi nomer,’” Rolan 44 (November 2004).
8] V. Kolobova, “Lichnyi nomer — novyi russkii blokba$ter,” Utro (9 December 2004).
9] Roman Koropeckyj and Robert Romanchuk, “Ukraine in Blackface: Performance and Representation in Gogol'’s Dikan'ka Tales, Book 1,” Slavic Review. 62.3 (Fall 2003): 525-48.

Evgenii Lavrent'ev, Countdown [Lichnyi nomer] (2004)

reviewed by David MacFadyen©2005

09/10/05