Issue 69 (2020)

Andrei Bogatyrev and Art Comancho: Wild League (Dikaia liga, 2019)

reviewed by Dane Reighard © 2020

dikaya-ligaFew contemporary film tropes are as tired and predictable as those associated with the underdog sports drama, in which a ragtag group of misfits bands together as a team, improves their skills exponentially in a short amount of time—usually assisted by the magic of montage—and delivers a ‘shocking’ upset against their less sympathetic rivals. Credit, then, must be given to Wild League for embedding these typically family-friendly clichés in a narrative framework so tonally off-kilter that the audience can hardly predict the bizarre developments that await next.

The past decade has seen a relative boon of Russian sports dramas—including Nikolai Lebedev’s Legend No. 17 (Legenda No. 17, 2013), Anton Megerdichev’s Going Vertical (Dvizhenie vverkh, 2017), Danila Kozlovskii’s The Coach (Trener, 2018), and Oleg Trofim’s Ice (Led, 2018)—that have been made with a heavy dose of Hollywood narrative and visual style and that have, likely as a result of this, experienced decent to massive success at the box office. Wild League boasts explicit ties to the American film industry, though, because it is co-directed by Russian Andrei Bogatyrev and American stunt choreographer Art Camacho and co-produced by Alexander “Russian Schwarzenegger” Nevsky, who resides in Los Angeles and has spent years serving as an unofficial ambassador to Hollywood.

dikaya-ligaThe film opens in 1909, as the burly burlak Varlam (Vladimir Iaglych) and his lover Malika (Adelina Gizatullina) travel from the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast to Moscow after the latter is accused of witchcraft (an intriguing detail that is never mentioned again). Upon arriving in the city, they make their way to the bustling Khitrov marketplace and cross paths with the other central characters. Balashov (Dmitrii Nazarov), the wealthy owner of a textile factory, and his right-hand man Yasha (Ivan Okhlobystin) are placing bets on a street brawl organized by the English James Parker (Adrian Paul) between his own countrymen and some locals. Varlam, looking for a job, is chosen by Parker at first sight to replace an injured fighter, and he utilizes his hulking stature and brute strength to lead the foreigners to victory. In the film’s first knowing wink to Hollywood, the brawl is set to a Celtic rock song that distractingly apes The Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” a tune instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), in which it features prominently.

dikaya-ligaObserving that street fighting is a passing fad, that “the people are thirsty for something new,” Balashov approaches Parker to discuss organizing a football match. Parker agrees with Balashov and once again recruits Varlam to play among the English. Their coach, a drunken former player names Jones (William Shockley), is adamant in his belief that the feral Russians cannot and should not play the civilized game of football, but after a training montage set to an anachronistic rap song, he concedes that the burlak is a natural.

dikaya-ligaAt this point in the film the ostensibly historical plot about the birth of football in Russia takes a backseat to a series of romantic and criminal intrigues centered around Parker. His genteel but conniving companion Alice (Olesia Sudzilovskaia)—whose true relationship to him (sister? lover? both?) remains ambiguous until the final act—attempts to seduce Varlam seemingly out of sheer boredom, and when her advances fail she poisons Malika, who in turn kills one of the hired goons holding her captive. Meanwhile Varlam, distracted by Malika’s absence from his first match, chokes, costing his team the victory. This causes Parker to panic, because he bet and lost all his money on the match and therefore cannot repay a debt to a mysterious Russian figure referred to only as Satan (Evgenii Koriakovskii). Satan, in response, murders Parker and forces Alice into prostitution at the brothel he owns, Heavenly Hell (Raiskii ad).

The film climaxes with Balashov’s passion project: the first all-Russian football match, between the Wild Ones—composed of hustlers, pickpockets, circus performers, other street urchins, and a few English ringers—and the blue-blooded Falconers. In the end, Alice is rescued, Satan is exposed and humiliated, and the Wild Ones rousingly defeat their opponent in front of a rapt audience of one thousand. A prince, so entertained by the spectacle, vows to create Russia’s first official football league.

dikaya-ligaWild League was promoted as a historical film based on true events, but audiences will not require a history degree to conclude that virtually nothing here is grounded in reality beyond the foundational premise of Englishmen introducing football to Russian soil in the early twentieth century. Once it becomes clear that the filmmakers’ intent is not to educate, the audience is left contemplating the film’s raison d'être. One obvious assumption is that this could be read as a commentary on the corrupt forces pulling the strings behind the scenes of contemporary professional football. What should be an exciting and frivolous diversion is unfortunately tainted by a lust for money that results in pervasive cheating and more serious criminal activity. Yet Balashov, essentially a turn-of-the-century oligarch, emerges as the most sympathetic figure, a tycoon beloved among his employees who uses his vast wealth in service of the culture and morale of the Russian people, particularly the lower classes. Because Wild League is a collaboration between Russian and American artists and because football’s corruption has proven to be an international issue, the film could surely get away with a sharper criticism of white collar criminal fat cats without ruffling many feathers among the Russian elite. With the devil himself serving as the film’s villain, however, his human pawns are at least partially absolved of responsibility for their transgressions.

Less surprising but no less frustrating is the film’s treatment of class. The title itself stresses the prominent role of social stratification in this story, and muzhiki face off against aristocrats in the climax, but it seems particularly dishonest to set a film in 1909 Russia and merely pay lip service to class differences while ignoring the existence of class conflict. Instead, Wild League is content to conclude that football is the great social equalizer for players and spectators alike. During halftime of the big match, when the are Wild Ones are trailing and spirits are low, Varlam inspires his teammates by reminding them of their upward mobility: “Not long ago I was hauling boats on the river. Wolf was a courier in Khitrovka. Penza was a bouncer. And now we’re playing football on a par with noblemen!” It’s a nice sentiment, but one cannot help but wonder if these men will feel the same way ten years down the road.

Dane Reighard,
University of California-Los Angeles

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Wild League, Russia, 2019
Color, 111 minutes
Directors: Andrei Bogatyrev, Art Comancho
Screenplay: Roman Vladykin, Igor’ Dobrovol’skii, Dmitrii Minchenok
DoP: Viacheslav Krasakov, Ken Blakey
Editing: Robert A. Ferretti
Production Design: Aleksandr Giliarevskii
Music: Sean Murray
Producers: Igor’ Dobrovol’skii, Iuliia Perkul’, Ol’ga Lediaeva, Anton Leont’ev, Eric Brenner, Alexander Nevsky
Cast: Vladimir Iaglych, Dmitrii Nazarov, Adrian Paul, Adelina Gizatullina, Olesia Sudzilovskaia, Ivan Okhlobystin, William Shockley, Evgenii Koriakovskii

Andrei Bogatyrev and Art Comancho: Wild League (Dikaia liga, 2019)

reviewed by Dane Reighard © 2020

Updated: 2020