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STUDIO: Entertainment One
RATED: Not rated
RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes
• Subtitles or dubbing!
Vladimir Putin presents Braveheart except the Scots are the Ukranians, and the English are the Polish; also the hero is a pot-bellied 68 year old.
Starring Bogdan Stupka, Igor Petrenko, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Magdalena Meltsazh, Ljubomiras Lautsyavichjus
In the 16th century, Taras Bulba is a crusty old Zaporozhian Cossack who journeys with his two sons Andiry and Ostap to join the other Cossacks fighting to repel the invading Polish Empire. His sons follow vastly different paths: Ostap embodies his father’s fierce warrior spirit with violent ferocity and unblinking intensity, whilst Andiry’s loyalty is conflicted by his love for a Polish nobleman’s beautiful daughter.
I selected this film because I thought it was the infamously terrible Genghis Khan biopic starring John Wayne that was rumored to have given everyone involved with it cancer. This is not that. This is an adaptation of a beloved Nikolai Gogol novel, once called one of the ten greatest books ever written by Ernest Hemingway. There was a Hollywood version in the 60’s with Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis, but this version was made by and for people who almost certainly hadn’t seen or maybe even heard of that version. This was made by the Russian Cultural Ministry and it actually courted some minor international controversy.
You see, many Russians believe that the Ukraine is just another part of Russia, whilst many Ukranians believe Russia should go fuck themselves. So you can understand why some Ukranians didn’t want Russia messing with their beloved story by doing something like, I don’t know, having all the Ukrainians speak Russian instead of Ukrainian. Not that the average viewer in the western world could tell those two languages apart, but to them, its a pretty big deal. Polish people, Catholics, and Jews might also have reason to object to their portrayal in this film, but why bother? At least they don’t still have Jew hunts in Russia. Well I’ve never been there but I don’t think they do.
The movie was originally titled Taras Bulba and he is the undeniable core of the tale. He is a magnetic mountain of a man who reunites with sons only minutes before besting one of them in brutal hand-to-hand combat; he is also a monstrously unconventional choice for the lead of a historical action epic by Hollywood standards, which only made me doubly delighted and further transfixed by his presence on screen. He’s in his late 60’s, and this isn’t Sly Stallone style sixties, this is an old man who lived a hard life; imagine what Brian Cox might look like if he lived under the gray thumb of Communism for most of his life.
When Taras Bulba wasn’t battling enemies, he was a subsistence farmer, which isn’t exactly the easiest job to settle into for your golden years, and he definitely looks the part. If you asked an old timer to describe him, he’d say he looked like he had ‘been rode hard and put away wet.’ Imagine way back in 1994 if instead of young sexy Mel Gibson playing William Wallace in Braveheart, they had cast Oliver Reed. If that ludicrous hypothetical intrigues you (I would love that movie) than you will enjoy Bogdan Stupka as the lead in this film. It’s nice to have a character that’s supposedly ‘too old for this shit’ and have them look like 1) they are getting too old for shit and 2) they definitely handled their share of shit back in the day. I’ve been shouting ‘Bogdan Stupka!’ all damn day. Try it.
The women in the story don’t exactly have much to do. The beautiful Polish daughter exists mainly to offer carnal temptation for Andiry to forsake his Cossack brethren, and to appear briefly topless. Taras Bulba’s wife is in the first twenty minutes or so until he rides off and OBVIOUS SPOILER GO WATCH THE SEARCHERS OR STAR WARS OR EVEN HIGHLANDER she gets super murdered and provides the motivation he needs to step up from badass to legendary badass. My spellcheck always tells me that badass is not a word. Fuck you spellcheck! It is so a word.
The character of Yankel the Jew is a bit problematic. Try to guess why! No I’ll just tell you. Pick any Jewish stereotypes, and he embodies them, and a few more from the old days you didn’t even know about. Taras Bulba ends up sparing him when a mob of his soldiers decide it’s time for a little Jew-hunting. Yankel basically pleads that slavish deference to money or power is just the Jewish nature, the way they have survived inhospitable lands for centuries. Yankel ends up fiercely loyal to Bulba, bringing him the terrible news of his son’s turncoat nature when no one else is brave enough to tell him and even risking his own life to smuggle him into Polish territory. The antisemitism does seem somewhat muted next to the proud burning hatred felt for the Roman Catholic Church by the Eastern Orthodox Cossacks. Christians seem to hate nothing more than other Christians who are doing something slightly different.
You can really stretch the Ruble. You really get more for your money in a place like that. In America, if you wanted to shoot a scene involving hundreds of soldiers on horseback hacking and slashing each other, you would need animal wranglers, stunt coordinators, and insurance policies out the ying-yang, but if you want to shoot that same scene in a country without rule of law, the price suddenly plummets. Wikipedia says this movie cost 15.7 million dollars which is frankly mind-boggling. This movie easily looks like it costs two, three or even four times that amount. For comparison, The Social Network, which is mostly indoors and features zero horses instead of 150, cost 40 million dollars to make. The actors were probably not prima donnas with extensive entourages, hemorrhaging money from the production. I haven’t seen this many horses in a film since Heaven’s Gate which is coincidentally the film that caused there to be so fewer horses in films (don’t learn about the making of that film if you are an animal lover). Bogdan Stupka is supposedly the most famous Ukrainian actor in the world, and they probably bought him lunch everyday.
The combat effects are all old-school in this movie, which still be state of the art in Russia for all I know. No CGI blood here. When people get slashed (many, many do) you will thick flowing streams of gooey cheery syrup gushing from their wounds. It always bugged me in movies when someone would get slashed with a sword from an angle so we the audience couldn’t see the wound, but then they would fall and die right in front of us, plainly revealing the lack of any wound. I don’t measure the quality of the films I watch by the gallons of blood they use, but when hundreds of people re fighting to the death with sharp rusty tools, I expect to see a little red liquid magic. Even the decapitations are done the old fashioned way, with a quick cut to an upright dummy with a fake head being launched in the air. CGI is the worst thing to happen to plenty of genres, but the ‘historical epic” really takes it in the shorts. How can you convince a studio to pay for thousands of extras (not to mention animals) when they could just animate them?
If you’ve seen all the epics from North America, Europe, and the more Asiany parts of Asia, then The Conqueror might be just the chance of pace you’re looking for. The more removed a culture is from Hollywood, the more fascinating it is to see what they do differently in the types of genre films that we’ve seen a thousand times before. Besides, when was the last time you watched a movie that was paid for by an autocrat? Expand your horizons, get a little culture, and I promise you will be rewarded with just the right amount of nudity and decapitations.
No special features. English dubbing in 2.0 Dolby Digital, Original dialogue in Russian/Polish/Ukranian in 5.1 Surround Sound. Despite being made for TV the productions values are all of cinematic quality.
The stereotypical music you imagine when you hear ’16th century Russian historical epic’ is the exact music you’ll be hearing the in the film, but it works well enough to underscore the emotions and get your blood flowing. The sounds effects on the other hand, are a little shoddy. Every punch sounds like it came from Walker Texas Ranger and most of the primitive rifles sound like either the henchman revolvers from Batman 1989 or the silenced pistols from Goldeneye. We should start a program to export foley artists to Russia, because goofy sounds effects can instantly destroy the seriousness of a scene. All the hacking and slashing sounds great, possibly because they really were attacking each other with swords. Also, not to sound like a fart-sniffing snob, but I opt for subtitles over dubbing whenever possible. For the sake of this review, I watched a few minutes with the dubbing, and it sucked just like most dubbing sucks.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars