REVIEW: DVD Release: War

Film: War
Release date: 21st February 2011
Certificate: 15
Running time: 120 mins
Director: Aleksei Balabnov
Starring: Aleksey Chadov, Ian Kelly, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Sergey Bodrov Jr.
Genre: Action/Drama/War
Studio: Palisades Tartan
Format: DVD
Country: Russia

Directed by the popular Russian filmmaker Aleksei Balabanov, best known for his 1997 film Brother, War is a tale of revenge in war-torn Chechnya. The film's main themes were thrown into the international limelight, not long after the its original release in 2002, following an incident in which a Moscow theatre was held hostage by Chechen rebells. Controversially, Special Forces used gas in a heavy-handed attempt to immobilise the Chechen captors, resulting in the death of over one hundred hostages. In light of such events, War's militaristic themes have been criticised by some, whilst its lack of a disconnected and sanitised depiction of war has been positively received by others.

On tour in Georgia, British actor John Boyle (Ian Kelly) and his fiancée Margaret (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) are captured by Chechen rebels. Having witnessed the brutal murder and beheading of two Russian soldiers, both are thrown into a cellar and held hostage, alongside a Russian conscript named Ivan (Aleksey Chadov). However, when the Chechen rebel leader realises his captors' ransom money is unlikely to materialise any time soon, he releases John to raise two million pounds in order to secure the release of his fiancée, Margaret. The Chechen leader also frees Ivan as a gesture of goodwill, but makes it clear that if John fails to raise the ransom money within two months, his fiancée will be raped and killed.

Whilst John travels to Britain, raising a relatively small sum of money, Ivan returns home. With no money, his father ill in hospital and no job, Ivan finds himself in the position of many post-war Chechnya veterans. Having nothing to lose, Ivan agrees to help John return to Chechnya, in order to save his fiancée…

In many respects, the plot sounds alarmingly similar to many terrible Hollywood action films, in which the characters fight off countless two-dimensional ‘bad guys’, blow up a few vehicles and save the day; not to mention becoming lifelong buddies thanks to the experience. Thankfully, War avoids these pitfalls and is anything but a predictable action film. With a striking sense of realism and lack of sentimentality, War is gritty and surprisingly sophisticated in its handling of a topic that is little discussed in film.

The range of characters that are brought together by the film's script offer an interesting range of perspectives. On the one hand, there's the tough Russian conscript, Ivan; unflinching in the face of death. On the other is the extremely timid British actor John, who never really seems to grasp the nature of the situations he finds himself in. However, in contrast to the aforementioned characters, the Chechen rebels are portrayed as stereotypical religious fanatics, with little depth beyond their merciless acts of decapitation. That said, this depiction of the rebels appears to be ironic in nature, an attempt on behalf of the director to reflect the views held by many Russians (after all, the film is narrated by Ivan).

Surprisingly, the film's action sequences are rather muted and are unlikely to get your heart pounding. But, in a way, this is what makes War a rather impressive action film. The action sequences, whilst anything but visually arresting, add a sense of realism that is not achieved by many films of this genre. Many scenes are long and drawn out, and offer nothing in the way of a satisfying resolution. This is the one aspect of the film that is most likely to divide viewers and, most importantly, what separates it from many modern action films.

Whilst the action sequences may be slow, the film does feature many notable shots and some stunning cinematography. From beautiful, mountainous backdrops to impressive tracking shots, Balabanov cannot be said to have created a film which is visually unsatisfying. Thanks to the film's extraordinary sense of realism, many shots which otherwise may be of little interest are particularly memorable. A scene in which John and Ivan roll a Jeep over the edge of a cliff, sending it crashing down the cliff face, is particularly memorable (if not for its beauty, then for the fact that it doesn't explode into flames).

Another point to note is the documentary-like feel of various scenes. Many scenes are shot using low quality camcorders, sometimes alternating between hand-held cameras and more conventional shots, providing a far more personal view of the events unfolding on screen. Most importantly, the director manages to pull this off without cheapening the overall feel of the film.

Many of the actors also offer some decent performances, although none can be described as 'exceptional'. Ian Kelly proves rather amusing as the timid Brit who, upon being captured and beat, informs his captors that they are not respecting his human rights. The transformation of his character, who appears far more focussed in a war situation by the end of the film, is also interesting. This is comically illustrated in a latter scene, in which John sits beside his distraught wife, apparently “pumped up” following the experience of combat, blissfully unaware of the trauma his wife has endured.

War is a breath of fresh air to a genre that can often lack imagination. Balabanov never sacrifices his characters to ostentatious action sequences which are detached from reality. Instead, the film explores a conflict that is rarely depicted in film and offers an interesting mix of drama and action. It may not be a groundbreaking film, but it's certainly an impressive addition to its genre. ME

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