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Boys to men
A UK region 2 DVD review of 9TH COMPANY / 9 ROTA 2 Disc Collector's Edition by Slarek
 

9th Company [9 rota] is one of those rare non-English language films that is being pushed to an international market and it's not hard to see why, as it has all the outward appearance of a film designed from the ground up to reach an audience far beyond national borders. In many ways it's the Russian equivalent of a Hollywood war movie, and I mean that in both the good and bad sense. It's spectacular when it needs to be, has high production values and fierce action, and it focuses on personal stories rather than the big picture. But it also romanticises, is occasionally trite in its symbolism and subtext, and tends to get loudly emotional when you want it to get gritty. But despite these similarities with its American cousins, I suspect the film was designed primarily for a Russian audience and that Hollywood techniques were employed primarily to give it a fighting chance in a market dominated by imported big budget spectaculars.

The story kicks off in 1988 and follows the fortunes of a group of young recruits who have elected to spend their military service as part of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, from their training camp trials to a fierce battle with Afghan fighters to defend a hilltop known as Height 3234, a real-life engagement that is still discussed by ex-soldiers in reverential tones and whose participants are regarded (and some decorated) as heroes.

There are obvious parallels here with the American experience in Vietnam, and it seems almost inevitable that American movies dealing with the ordinary soldier's experience in that conflict should prove a key influence on Bondarchuk's film. The division of the story into two roughly equal chapters, the first set in the training camp and the second on front line, recalls Full Metal Jacket, complete with a later reunification scene between two of the trainees and a Warrant Officer whose aggressive brutality rivals Kubrick's Sgt. Hartman. There are also echoes of Platoon, from volatile Sgt. Barnes stand-in Khokhol (played by director Bondarchuk and similarly kitted out with two veteran cronies) and the punishment he dishes out for sleeping on watch, to the let-it-all-hang-out party at which the soldiers get drunk and bond to temporarily forget their troubles.

A low-budget film by Hollywood standards – the cost was approximately $9 million – its larger scale battles were only made possible through the cooperation of the Ukranian armed forces, who collectively supplied the production with thirty T-64-B tanks, twenty MI-24 and MI-8 helicopters, twenty-two AN and MIG fighters, and over one-and-a-half thousand extras. But the main focus is on the soldiers and their journey from raw recruits to battle-scared veterans, and a good part of the movie's success or failure thus rests on your engagement with them. For a non-Russian audience, this can initially prove tricky, with their shaven heads and unfamiliar names resulting in some possible identity confusion. Help is at hand in the form of sometimes heavy-handed character definition and a score that really likes to press the emotional buttons, occasionally a push too far on scenes already soaked in "FEEL for them" visuals (an overly triumphant taking of a hill in training camp that is all joyous shouts and slow motion hugs, or the decision to show a vulnerable side of Dygalo by having him sit and weep in a beautifully framed field of red flowers while the camera dolly-zooms in and the music gets a lump in its throat). Even action scenes come close to being hobbled by the score and the slow-mo, which stomps clumsily into the middle of vicious gun battles and bombing raids as if attempting to mythologize moments whose power stems from their painful realism rather than their spectacle or overwrought sense of tragedy.

When it comes to military engagements, the violence is realistically ferocious and the deadly mayhem of a firefight is convincingly portrayed. The final assault on Height 3234 is particularly impressive, the hand-to-hand combat as brutal as anything I've seen in some time, while a true sense of the confusion and madness of battle is captured in the extraordinary sequence in which the group comes under fire from one of its own helicopters. But such bravura work is sometimes undermined by dips into sledgehammer suggestion, which comes close to completely scuppering one of the most remarkable and otherwise effective scenes, as a talisman passed from one soldier to another brings instant disaster for its former wearer and is fondled meaningfully by its new owner as he ponders the man's fiery demise. Yes, we get it.

The non-combat scenes, of which there are many, do have their moments. Giaconda may qualify as the dumbest soldier in the platoon for leaving his post and following an Afghan tribesman back to his village to trade, but it still makes for nail-biting sequence. Another scene played solely for laughs, in which Giaconda moulds plastic explosive into a penis while a short-sighted instructor continues his lecture unaware that the class is collapsing around him, is actually quite funny, although more for actor Konstantin Kyukov's gentle clowning than the unrestrained giggling of his comrades. One of the most effective scenes has a weary Captain (an impressively low key turn by Alexei Serebryakov) deliver a well written monologue to the largely disinterested soldiers on the nature of Islamic state they are soon to enter, a rare acknowledgement of an indigenous population as a people with their own culture and beliefs – elsewhere they serve largely as background figures or the bogeymen enemy, much as the Viet Cong were to the 9th Company's Marines, or the Zulus to the 24th Regiment of Foot.

The politics of the war itself are largely danced around in favour of a more old-fashioned tale of male bonding, rites-of-passage education and heroism in face of impossible odds. On this level 9th Company tends to hold its own, pushing familiar generic buttons in largely efficient and occasionally thoughtful fashion. But it's at its most interesting in the more offbeat and unborrowed moments: the soldiers in transit who stir from sleep to see a helicopter hovering outside the rear door of their transport plane like an animal peering curiously at potential prey; the unexpected payoff when Giaconda is hauled before Dygalo for his plastic explosive tomfoolery; a teasingly unexplored suggestion that some officers may be selling weapons; the raid on another regiment's food supplies that nearly ends in a shooting. Elsewhere elements feel like recycled lip service to genre expectations, especially in the training scenes, right down to the toughen-him-up fist fight initiated by Dygalo and the soldier who passes up his last chance to leave so that he can keep a pledge to his comrades.

There's a fair amount to enjoy and admire in 9th Company, and for a first feature it's a seriously ambitious undertaking. Mind you, it does seem to run in the family – director Fyodor Bondarchuk's father Sergei was the man behind the country's most expensive and ambitious film, War and Peace. But it's an uneven journey that paints in broad and often familiar strokes, an old school war movie given a modern makeover, complete with hyperactive handheld camerawork and the post-Gladiator angled shutter effect. It's certainly struck a chord on home turf, becoming the highest grossing movie to date in post-Communist Russia, and is assured a place in film history as the first Russian film to deal with the war in Afghanistan. But it's left to one of the real soldiers from the campaign on this very DVD's extra features to ponder a key question about the Soviet presence in Afghanistan that is never posed here: should they have been there in there first place?

sound and vision

Framed 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the transfer here is, as you'd hope, up there with the best Hollywood releases. Contrast, detail and colour (which has been extensively timed to give each location its own particular look) are all excellent and the angled shutter flicker is coped with well. The cinematography is often striking and is well served by the transfer here, even if some interiors seem lit for beauty rather than realism. A fine job.

There's a choice between Russian 5.1 and DTS surround soundtracks and the DTS track is the winner, having more punch and volume and some thumping good LFE bass. There are a couple of sound effects misdirected to the rear, but otherwise the surround work is first rate, especially the battle scenes and anything involving helicopters. The quality of the sound recording and foley work is top notch.

extra features

This is a 2 disc set and the extra features are all on disc 2.

Making the Movie (38:53)
A busy and consistently interesting making-of documentary that blends cast and crew interviews with brief biographies, a useful history of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. Bondarchuk come across as an energetic and enthusiastic director, although his on-set directions are riddled with censorship bleeps. It was interesting to hear that the film character of Snow White, a seemingly fanciful Madonna/Whore figure, was based on a real person. Intriguingly, producer Yelena Yatsura suggests that the film will be read differently by Russians and non-Russians. I'd say she's on to something there.

Behind the Scenes
A misleadingly labelled section that is actually a collection of trailers. The Original Theatrical Trailer (2:01) introduces the characters and then moves on to the war footage, which is cut down for speed in the two Original TV Spots (0:30 and 0:40). The Original Theatrical Teaser (2:28) modifies the formula and is rather well done, while the UK Theatrical Trailer (1:34) is hampered by a rather dopey voice-over.

20 Years Later (29:54)
A very worthwhile set of interviews with real 9th Company veterans mixed with what appears to be genuine footage of the Russian army in Afghanistan. Memories of their combat experiences give some aspects of the film credibility that might not otherwise be evident, and there's clear support for a film that tries to show just what they went through. But it's left to ex-soldier Iskander Islamgalievich to question their presence in the country. "We entered mosques with machine guns and flack jackets," he recalls. "Now I understand why they hated us and wanted to kill us."

The Premiere (8:54)
A not that interesting extra in which three unidentified commentators, one of them very briefly, gush over the film's qualities at and after the film's premiere.

summary

War movie buffs will find plenty to get happy about in 9th Company, especially its battle scenes, whose use of real helicopters, tanks, personnel and explosions creates a physicality and urgency that CG still can't quite match. But there's little here the experienced war movie watcher will not have seen before, and despite the comparison made in the publicity and this review with key Vietnam war movies of the 70s and 80s, 9th Company never quite achieves their sublime blend of storytelling, gut punch and art.The DVD release from Contender, is fine, however, excelling on picture and sound and boasting some interesting extra features on the second disc. If you think 9th Company is going to work for you then this DVD will not disappoint.

9th Company
9 rota

Russia / Ukraine / Finland 2005
130 mins
director
Fyodor Bondarchuk
starring
Fyodor Bondarchuk
Aleksei Chadov
Mikhail Evlanov
Ivan Kokorin
Artyom Mikhalkov

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS 5.1 surround
languages
Russian
subtitles .
English
extras
Making the Movie featurette
Trailers
20 Years Later featurette
The Premiere featurette
distributor
Contender
release date
11 June 2007
review posted
15 June 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews