The Moscow Times
Tom Birchenough

In a new Russian action movie, the leader of a sinister cult-like compound chases a heroic special agent through the wilderness of the Far East

Hard men thrash it out in the taiga with a violent vengeance in Andrei Kavoun's The Hunt for Piranha, which looks set to be Russia's latest blockbuster, although it's hard to see much in it that will appeal to female audiences – and kids are another matter, indeed. With little policing of age-access laws in Russia's cinemas, it can only be hoped that this competent action movie doesn't get younger viewers honing up on the various homemade extermination methods on display. And that's even before it airs in a prime-time slot on a national television channel, most likely state-owned Rossiya. Many different issues may end up triggering protests in Russia, but elsewhere in the world, this movie would have parents' and teachers' associations firing off their salvos aplenty.

The plot background is familiar enough to fans of the genre: namely, a standoff between a heroic special agent and rogue players linked to terrorism, in this case a frightening outfit named Red Islam that's trying to get its hands on lethal chemical waste left behind for many years after an accident in an underwater research facility out in the wilderness near the Chinese border. Only when the area is due to be handed over to China do security bosses wake up to the fact that it's time to close down the facility and destroy its remaining arsenal. Responsibility for the task goes to agent Kirill Mazur (Vladimir Mashkov), whose nickname "Piranha" provides the film's title. Director Kavoun milks comedy from the fact that his partner in the mission is the more-than-decorative Olga (Svetlana Antonova), who has scientific knowledge to match Piranha's brawn.

In the course of a prolonged journey to their distant lake destination, culminating in a rafting trip, elements of friction bubble between the pair. (More skeptical viewers may wonder how, when Soviet science was building high-profile secret research facilities back in the 1960s, it got along without such basics as, well, roads. File under "suspension of disbelief"?) It's when that mission is accomplished, however, that the couple bumps into the real bad guy of Kavoun's film, who is more frightening that any Red Islam or chemical disaster: the psychotic Prokhor (Yevgeny Mironov, dyed blond). The film's opening scene shows how 8-year-old Prokhor witnessed his scientist father's ugly demise when an experiment in the institution went badly wrong and the place was automatically shut down, trapping the survivors – except, obviously, the kid, without whose continuing existence there wouldn't be a story. Clearly, the childhood trauma hit Prokhor hard, given that he has grown up into a sadistic brute, first seen indulging in martial arts in a plush urban apartment, before falling into the embraces of his elaborately braided girlfriend Sinilga (Viktoria Isakova, also not the kind of character anyone would want to meet on a dark night).

The true character of the couple kicks in when we next see them out in the taiga. The captured pair of Kirill and Olga have ended up in a rather bizarre fort-like compound resembling an Old Believers' settlement, though its inhabitants sport costumes that take in the Civil War and other periods, and the punishments – aside from brutal beatings and summary executions – include Kirill's confinement in stocks. A selection of hapless locals has also been imprisoned there (not exactly Old Believer behavior, but that's another matter). Before handing over the lethal material that he's obviously had in his hands for some time, Prokhor – who is evidently rather sporting in his sadism – launches a hunt for these human targets, who are released into the wilderness to be tracked down and finished off. Cue to standoff with Piranha, whose inventiveness in defense is as accomplished as his ability to take out enemies. Nature lovers may enjoy the forest and other locations, while those interested in various forms of self-defense certainly have much to learn.

With inexorable logic, the plot builds up to a final sword confrontation between the two opponents on the roof of a train heading to China; no prizes for guessing who wins, and special effects don't impress. Along the way, virtually all the other players are put out of their misery in some spectacular ways (the scene in which Sergei Garmash twists the neck of an injured fellow escapee is the most shocking for its sheer simplicity). Except – surprise! – for Olga, who mysteriously survives a burning building to reunite with her sometime sparring partner Kirill and a closing kiss.

Technical credits are accomplished enough throughout. Mironov and Mashkov are talented actors who reportedly did all their own stunts. Producer Valery Todorovsky is an acclaimed art-house director in his own right. Welcome to Russian producer-driven cinema – with a vicious touch.