Yes, that?s a bear with a minigun.
So I got to see ?Guardians?, a Russian superhero movie that was trying really hard to be the Avengers. You may recall it from the really cool scenes they released online prior to its launch.
In Russia, critics slammed it and people from around the world were not much kinder. It was such a box office bomb that it bankrupted the studio that produced it. The Russian government, who had helped fund it, is demanding its money back. I saw it and? it?s not that bad. That?s right- I?m going to defend what is essentially a mockbuster of The Avengers (or whatever superhero teamup movie you are thinking of).
Let me set some ground rules. My copy of the movie was obviously in Russian and had pretty questionable English subtitles. I got the gist of it but the finer points were lost in translation so I won?t speak to the quality of the dialogue and I?ll give the movie the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the relaying of information. I also understand that this is a profoundly Russian production and is written from the Russian perspective. I am not Russian so I?m sure there will be things I miss because of it. I am an American and thus can only review it as an American.
Ok- so here is the summary (spoilers- skip this paragraph if you don?t want any). During the Cold War there is a scientific project, called ?Patriot?, funded by the military to basically make superhumans. There are two scientists working at it and one of them, Professor August Kuratov, goes all mad scientist and runs away with the research. The military finds him, he blows up his own base, and gets chemicals spilled on him.
Fast forward to present day and Kuratov comes back as some freaky, muscular, mutant guy who can control technology. He steals some new prototype weapons and basically causes chaos. The Russian military decides to re-activate the Patriot program and puts Major Elena Larina in charge. They find 4 of the projects and assemble the team. There is Ler who is basically an earthbending Christian monk, Khan who has these cool sabers and can teleport, the were-bear and scientist Ursus, and Xenia who can turn invisible when in water. They are collected, try to fight Kuratov and this army of robot-soldiers he developed but fail and get captured (Ler is assumed dead). He offers them to join him, they refuse, he leaves to do badguy stuff, and the Patriot soldiers rescue the superheroes.
The last act sees Kuratov literally steal a tower so he can use his powers to control all technology the planet. The Guardians heal up (Ler is revived- he wasn?t dead), given some Patriot program gear to up their powers and sent off to destroy Kuratov?s transmitting dish. Ler gets a suit with rocks that generate electro-magnetic energy (this is normally used like a whip or shield), Khan is given armor, Ursus is given a rage-triggered (not even kidding you) AI controlled machine gun, and Xenia is given a suit that allows her to turn invisible whenever (not just when wet) and turn other objects invisible.
They assault the tower, disable the shield protecting it, and then get their butts kicked by Kuratov. They escape (the tower was going to be bombed but Kuratov stops it), channel their powers together in an act that could kill them (they learned they could do this from the other professor on the project). This knocks the tower over, Kuratov probably dies, and afterwards the team splits up to do their own things. A post credit scene shows Major Larina in cuffs, escaping from a prison transport.
People have bashed the CGI as being terrible but? I didn?t see it that way. Most of it was mixed nicely with practical effects (Kuratov was pretty freaky looking thanks to some great makeup) and was actually very solid. It wasn?t on the level of like a Marvel movie but it was solid. The biggest offenders of terrible CGI were Ursus and Xenia. Ursus being almost fully CGI in most of his fight scenes made him look very out of place and there was a scene in the beginning with Xenia that could have used a little more polish. Still, I enjoyed it; Khan being my favorite in terms of effects.
No, not THOSE Guardians.
The camera work was pretty slick- it had some serious production money behind it and it showed. They had some very high end sets, a lot of imagination in their prop-work, and the shots were well-composed. The costume work was just beautiful- Lem?s outfit in particular stood out.
One of the interesting things about this movie is that it picks people from the many ethnicities of Russia (or, at least, Cold War Russia). Ler is from Armenia, Khan is from Kazakhstan, Ursus is from Siberia, and Xenia is from Moscow. I?m not sure how this felt in Russia but it kinda felt cool as an American seeing basically what amounted to a well-integrated cast of minorities. They explain this in the plot by saying the Patriot program was trying people from all regions.
Now let?s talk about the bear in the room- the absurd, frantic, over-the-top, weirdness that is this Russian superhero flick. They kind of went over the top, committed to it, and then jumped the shark a few times for good measure. I imagine that the conception of Ursus went something like this: ?We are a Russian movie? Cool. Let?s make a bear-hero. Not cool enough? Hmmm? let?s give him a minigun and basically make him our Hulk. A budget of $5 million you say? Deal!?. The production team really committed to their characters and has a blast bringing them to life. There are robot soldiers, bears with chain guns, teleporting swordsmen, crazy stunt-fights, a dude in rock armor beating up robot soldiers, explosions, Russian techno-rap music, and so much more. It was a party and I dug the sheer absurdity of it all.
Valeriya Shkirando as Major Elena Larina
Let me just take a moment right here to praise Major Larina. Major Elena Larina, played by Valeriya Shkirando, is DYNAMITE. The best way I can describe her character is that she is Katee Sackhoff?s Starbuck from the new Battlestar, but told she was going to be Nick Fury (who runs SHIELD). She has such screen presence as this ass-kicking military officer that she feels more like a superhero than the rest of the Guardians. She has this cool confidence, is dressed to kill (yeah, this movie does indulge the male gaze quite a bit?), and has phenomenal presence that just demands she be at the center of every scene she is in (even if she is not the focus).
Sanzhar Madiyev as Khan
Sanzhar Madiyev as Khan is amazing in every fight scene he?s in. He?s a consummate martial artist, does the coolest damn poses ever (hey- it?s a superhero thing), and his teleportation power is rendered in such a cool way (black smoke, his eyes turn white, etc) that when they blend it in with his martial arts prowess it is amazing. Sebastien Sisak as Ler was solid casting- he seems to have the most acting chops out of any of the other actors and his character as the monastic Ler is probably the most serious of any of them. If there is a weak link it?s Alina Lanina as Xenia. Her character doesn?t do much- she takes out one or two guys in a scene where the others take out dozens. She is constantly foiled but praised for it. Alina is a decent actress but I?m not sure if it was the script or her commitment to it, but she just kind of feels like she?s not part of the team.
Ok so I?ve gushed about it enough- let?s talk about the bad stuff. People have mentioned that it had some pretty big plot holes and? that?s totally true. Stuff like a character sacrifices themselves in one scene and you are visually told they are dead and literally the next scene they are the first one though the door to fight the bad guy as if nothing had happened. It?s never commented on, explained, or mentioned- it just happens. Their are lots of these weird, off-beat, kind of continuity issues that pop up. I kind of feel like this movie was a bunch of set pieces and fight scenes that they just REALLY wanted to make and they relegated the task of explaining how these cool scenes were strung together to their 2nd string writers (or maybe a homeless person off the street).
There is also a weird issue with pacing and what can best be described as ?convenience?. They have these scenes that should probably play out over days worth of time within their movie and they just kind of occur almost instantly. Like they reactivate the Patriot program, Major Larina walks over to the base and BOOM- it is fully formed, fully staffed, busy, everyone wearing matching uniforms, and she just kind of walks in and takes charge. Then they proceed to find all 4 of the Guardians within 2 minutes via rapid fire dialogue about combing though news feeds and stuff. It feels really rushed, sloppy, and deus ex machina heavy. There are a few scenes like this and a lot of it feels like they just wanted to handwave it away so they could get to the next cool fight scene. In many ways this reminds me of like 70s or 80s kung fu movies, but done with a big budget Russian superhero movie.
If there is another issue it?s in the writing. Again, I won?t harp on the dialogue, but the composition of the script doesn?t give the characters much time to develop. When they remember to do it- it?s not natural; they squeeze it in awkwardly in exposition-only scenes. For example, there is a scene where we get some development for Khan but it?s literally just him and Major Larina talking in a random location- with no rhyme or reason as to why they are there. It impacts nothing, it isn?t brought up again, and just feels extraneous. We are also literally told straight up what each person?s fear is at one point and that doesn?t pay off at all either. They do this a few times and I can?t help but imagine that someone was forcing the writers to add them so they just threw their hands up and gave in.
They wanted to make an Avengers movie but forgot the things that made the Avengers movies great. It?s not the superpowers, the costumes, or the set- it?s the writing. They are humans with emotions and interests and that is what drives the story. They have humor and humanity mixed in with the powers and spectacle. This movie forgot to toss in humor, the character arcs were placed in the background rather than the forefront. Ursus is scared of going to far and being stuck in bear form? but he uses his powers regularly and never makes not of it. At the end of the movie he?s basically the same guy as he was at the start except he has a few friends.
So, overall- it?s good but flawed. It is a truly bizarre, over the top, fun, spectacle but be ready for some head-scratching moments. I?m actually sad it was a bomb in the box office- I think people were setting their expectations too high. 6/10 but go watch it. This is the start of something- I don?t know what or if it will be good or bad but the Chinese distribution company for this movie has the rights to it and is apparently making a sequel with a lot of Chinese characters so I am waiting to watch that- it?ll be a unique artifact if nothing else.