Jeremy Morris

If the director of this action movie had made a dollar every time viewers (and not just a film-literate one) thought to themselves: "Hang on, that reminds me a lot of "X" foreign action/thriller I saw on TV in a poorly dubbed version", then producer Valery Todorovsky (director of the acclaimed Land of the Deaf (Strana glukhikh, 1997) and his Rossiya Channel backers may well have made more on this film than from the actual box office receipts. The Hunt for Piranha concerns audience expectations; the film engages in a "dialogue" with other Russian and foreign action films; as well as competes for the now profitable cinema audiences and, more importantly, the prestige status of these projects (which undoubtedly has financial implications) for the national channels that sponsor or produce such films.

The plot is as follows: during Soviet times little Prokhor (the adult character is played by a manic, campy Yevgeny Mironov) lived an idyllic Soviet childhood – signified in the opening scene by Prokhor's presentation to his soon-to-be deceased father of a childish drawing (incidentally, far too childish considering his age) of Mama, Papa (a lab worker for a secret chemical weapons program in the Far East of the USSR) holding Prokhor's hand, and Lenin! Due to a rather ridiculous accident in the lab, Prokhor's father is gunned down in front of him. All that remains are his memories and a five-kopek coin his father gave him for the drawing. Scarred by this experience, Prokhor becomes a very bad man indeed: a heavy drug user, dealer in chemical weapons, and a cold-blooded killer.

Already even the most jaded or die-hard action film fans may well be scratching their heads at the implausibility of a small child wandering around a heavily-guarded top-secret military lab in 1970s USSR. Perhaps this is why the whole flashback sequence that presents this part of the plot is shot in an almost monochrome, soft-focus: as if this might lend to the unlikely scenario an air of dreamlike memory. The musical score for the introduction to the film-proper is also notable – if only because it genuinely provides an atmosphere of menace. It is worth highlighting such specific elements of mise-en-scene because the film is so eclectic in almost every respect. Even in this opening sequence, the inexperienced director's intent seems to be to play on the viewers' memory of every deadly-chemical/biohazard-lab-about-to-go-horribly-wrong scene likely to have been seen in the standard Hollywood treatments of this motif: Twelve Monkeys (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1995), The Rock (dir. Michael Bay, 1996), etc.

It is now present-day Moscow. Enter Kirill Mazur (Vladimir Mashkov), a captain in the secret special-forces unit "Piranha." Unfortunately the USSR's deadly cold-war secrets are coming home to roost: in a short time Russia is to cede the area containing the lab (flooded and covered by a lake – a rather extreme safety device) to the Chinese. Mazur's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to make the lab safe by destroying all traces of the deadly chemical (red mercury – that mythical substance beloved of spy-thrillers the world over). Mazur is assigned a feisty and occasionally-feminist sidekick in Olga (Svetlana Antonova), an expert in chemical weapons. They travel to the Far East (mainly by raft, it would appear). Though they successfully destroy the lab, some of the vials have gone missing. Very soon they are captured by a mixture of Old-Believers, Cossacks, and Siberian aborigines (as reviews of the film call them). Prokhor appears – it turns out that not only is he in the chemical weapons trade, he also organises "hunts" in these wilds with the Old-Believers camp as his base and its inhabitants as his retinue. Stray tourists and captured special-forces officers are their prey. After an extended chase through the forest and a redundant shift in locale to a rather dull urban pursuit in what is presented as the wild East (opportunities here for further fights with local "rednecks"), Prokhor is rather abruptly (and suitably bloodily) defeated onboard a train bound for the border. None of the other hunted make it, apart from Olga, of course.

A charitable analysis of the reasoning of the production and direction team might be that given a script (based on a book by Aleksandr Bushkov) that references, steals, borrows, and knocks over the head every popular action/thriller cliche going, they might as well get into the spirit of things and up the violence, bangs, guns, girls, and everything else one might expect in the supposedly saleable ekshn (action) genre. And this would seem the only course of action possible given such a risible script, and, if truth be told, the second-tier star status of Mashkov and Mironov (there is the usual solid supporting cast of Soviet-era actors on hand, including Sergei Garmash who threatens to upstage the main players until his character is rather quickly and wastefully killed off). Mironov, it is clear, enjoys a performance that seems to be based on the kind of villain who is not only irredeemably bad, but has a sadomasochistic thing going on – big guns, female sadists with dread-locks, and reading Goethe. Physically the performance recalls Gary Oldman's corrupt cop-cum-drug addicted psychotic in Leon (dir. Luc Besson, 1994). In an early scene, where we are introduced to the villain in his lair, not only are we treated to a bleach-blond Mironov with a goatee and wearing a hairnet as he wields a samurai sword, but also to a quick glance at his taste in wall-art, which reveals photo portraits of Churchill and Colonel Khadafy. Mashkov, by contrast, looks to be as bewildered as his director: he is variously asked to step into the shoes of so many cinematic hard men that his performance is restricted to designing ways of killing (they are in the outback and he must fashion booby-traps and bows out of sticks, hair, and shoelaces), making sexist jokes (surely Olga can urinate standing up? – they haven't the time to stop the raft), and spitting blood during the torture (literal and metaphoric) inflicted on him. The irony is that Mashkov, a decent film actor, is rather out of his depth in being asked to play a chameleon role combining James Bond, Rambo, John McClane (Die Hard, dir. John McTiernan, 1988), Lewis Medlock (Deliverance, dir. John Boorman, 1972), the standard Van Damme/Seagal martial arts fighter beloved of Russian male youth, John Matrix (Commando, dir. Mark L. Lester, 1985), and a mythic Russian special forces captain who knows his Goethe.

A project like The Hunt for Piranha needs to be viewed as part of the ongoing tussle for cinema prestige and income between the two leviathan state channels. While Channel One had a genuine blockbuster with Night Watch (dir. Timur Bekmambetov) in 2004, Rossiya, even though sponsoring various successful projects such as Shadow Boxing (Boi s teniu, dir. Aleksei Sidorov, 2005) had not achieved the action-thriller box-office success it craved. The Hunt for Piranha was the project that was supposed to change that. It clearly didn't (financially or critically), and in the mission statements of Rossiya and its production companies the magical words "blockbuster" and ekshn continue to feature heavily. Such hopes, and a huge amount of promotional money, have now been invested in Wolfhound (Volkodav, dir. Nikolai Lebedev, 2006), which the Rossiya promoters predict will become "the first Russian fantasy blockbuster." Such a tagline sounds a lot like a description of Night Watch.

Those at Rossiya with pretensions to the level of success achieved by Channel One in cinema and the lucrative made-for-TV film market will have to do much better if they are seriously to challenge the ascendancy of Channel One. As one indignant Russian review put it, The Hunt for Piranha has "nothing of its own" to offer, and relies on an uncomfortable borrowing from various staples of the action genre in literally every scene. This is cinematic parroting at its worst and in no way does the director present such borrowing other than as symptomatic of his and the scriptwriter's lack of imagination; it is conceivable that a more confident production team might have credited its audience with a sense of irony and sought to inject a sense of humor, or suspense for that matter, into this conveyor of violence and death-by-numbers. Unfortunately this film has pretensions to which it cannot live up. Rather than the huge plugging Rossiya gave this film, they might have been better off actually spending something on the special effects, which are at times rather poor. Editing and continuity suffer too: a crucial scene linking the destruction of the underwater lab with the capture of the heroes is shot and edited in a perfunctory, hurried, and schematic way that confuses the viewer. Those wanting blood and guts cannot complain. Mironov is called upon to perform particularly gratuitous and visceral killings. Even in this failsafe resort to nastiness, however, this film shows itself to be out of kilter with the prevailing cinematic mood. Ultraviolence really reached the end of its useful life in Antikiller (dir. Yegor Konchalovsky, 2002), where the violence at least had symbolic meaning and genuinely shocked. In The Hunt for Piranha it is just unpleasant.

A final comment on three other aspects of the film that deserve derision. The dialogue is truly awful, even for action film standards (perhaps with the exception of Seagal's films). A couple of choice lines, firstly, by Mironov in the final confrontation scene: "I cannot be killed; I died when I was eight"; secondly, by Olga: "If this substance falls into the wrong hands, half of humanity could perish." The film score, apart from the opening scene, consistently undermines any sense of suspense and excitement. In the scene introducing Mironov as a drug-crazed loon, Ravel's Bolero plays, which perhaps reflects the character's taste in music, but still comes across as completely incongruous and silly. Finally, the film's "approach" to Olga and the female sidekick of the villain makes even the worst Bond films look vaguely feminist in comparison. Olga's headstrong independence is shown almost immediately to be a sham, and after the first few scenes (including one where Mashkov and a male colleague share a joke behind her back about the size of her breasts) she is literally baggage with a cleavage.

As if to show the producers don't quite have the confidence they should in the movie, even the title is a bit of a strange fish. Not a few reviewers have commented that it suggests a rather more bankable, hybrid horror movie such as Eight-Legged Freaks (dir. Ellory Elkayem, 2002), or indeed Night Watch. The promotional posters suggest as much (Mashkov in survivalist mode, with bow and arrow at the ready). The consensus reached by Russian critics is that the Russian ekshn has either exhausted its potential for the time being, or simply has not yet come of age. It is possible to look at it a different way: borrowing from a different cinematic tradition doesn't really work that well, especially if the only concessions to local factors are quotations from Goethe (the hero and villain read books – differentiating them culturally from their Hollywood analogues) and the Dunaevskii song from The Children of Captain Grant (Deti kapitana Granta, dir. Vladimir Vainshtok, 1936) – he had a Soviet childhood – as if that too would make Mashkov appear a particularly "Russian" action hero. Mashkov singing Captain, Captain, Give us a Smile while wiping out Mironov's henchmen comes across more as a cry for help than a defining catchphrase of a franchisable Russian action hero. Bruce Willis he certainly isn't.