33-year-old Armenian director Sark Andreasyan has a charmed career. He founded Enjoy Movies, and according to FilmPro, it’s the most successful Russian production company in 2012. That year, Enjoy released 5 feature films — three directed by Andreasyan. This represented a quarter of Russia’s theatrical market share. That same year, Adreasyan created an alliance company with none other than the Master of Evil himself — Darth Vader. That’s right: Hayden Christiansen. The two of them worked on a movie together, 2015’s American Heist, a remake of Steve McQueen’s American Robbery.
His earliest projects were all profitable low budget comedies. These successes must have emboldened Andreasyan. Maybe he was ready to make the jump to bigger and better things. And what is bigger and better than a cinematic shared superhero universe? Nothing, that’s what! American movie companies are running rampant all over the world with their Captain Americas (#13 in the 2016 box office) and their Doctor Stranges (#8) and their Suicide Squads (#5?!?!?!) and their Deadpools (#4). (Incidentally, put a pin on the top rated Russian superhero movies of 2016. I’m going to get back to that later.)
Why shouldn’t the Confederation of Independent States have superhero franchise of their own? Where the heroes hail from all corners: Moscow, Siberia, Armenia, and Kazakhstan?
There’s only one problem: Andreasyan is not a very good director.
My biggest laugh of the entire movie is something that’s very simple: the title card. Imagine you’re watching an Avengers movie. The movie starts off with a fancy credits sequence. Without showing you the characters, they have a sequence that implies the powers of the different heroes. One shows a human skull transforming into something Hulk-like, for example. Then you get a title card: “Marvel’s Avengers.” The Avengers theme kicks in. You’re pumped.
Not five minutes later, you have a scene where, say, Nick Fury is talking to Maria Hill about assembling a team and asks, “What should we call them?” Maria Hill stares at the viewer for a second, pulls a smirky Dreamworks face, and then… title card: “Marvel’s Avengers”. And the Avengers theme kicks in.
Oh Lord, did I laugh.
Something like this happens in this movie, only it’s called Guardians. (Not to be confused with the French drama of the same name released the very same year.) If this movie already didn’t look like an Asylum direct-to-video release, the title should clinch it. It sounds like it was intentionally meant to confuse grandmas at a Wal-Mart.
“This is that Guardians movie you wanted, right, dearie? That superhero movie with the funny bear in it?”
“No, grandma! It’s the one with a funny raccoon! A raccoon! You always ruin my birthday, grandma!”
“Oh, my! Such disrespect from a 20-year-old!”
I honestly think that the movie has a solid, if somewhat generic, premise. The Soviets create a bunch of super-powered supersoldiers in order to fight the US. Remember, Russia’s favorite movies from the previous year were closer to the anti-hero mold. They’re far closer to being Suicide Squad then they are the Avengers or the Guardians of the Galaxy. These guys are dark, brooding, all carrying tragic pasts, sometimes tattooed, have no problems with killing… and in one case is a reliable cheesecake delivery service. I snorted derisively when they went full-on Joel Schumacher when the one lady on the team revealed her new superhero outfit. Do not miss the lighted-up ass shot.
But it can work. As many of you know from my Open Threads regarding Filipino superheroes, I’m a sucker for foreign interpretations for a very American genre aimed at kids and adolescents. We already know a Captain America is possible. What of a Captain Russia? Can bear be Captain Russia?
So let’s meet our heroes! There’s a hermit named Ler (Sebastien Sisak) who can control rocks, and he can cover himself up to look like The Thing but with the face of WWE’s Elias. He doesn’t say much, but he’s positioned as the most reasonable guy of the bunch. There a lady named Ksenia (Alina Lanina) who can turn invisible, but only when she gets wet… a power that sounds like it’s straight out of Mystery Men. They find her performing in Moscow’s version of a Las Vegas aquatic show and discover that she doesn’t remember anything about being in the superhero program. There’s a speedster named Khan (Sanzhar Madiyev) who comes equipped with two sickles, a true improvement to his superpower that I’m surprised more speedsters don’t carry as standard equipment. He also gets saddled with a tragic backstory where he killed his brother, Abei, on accide-… wait a minute. Khan and Abei? In a story about being your brother’s keeper? Huh.
Then there’s the piece de resistance: a bear man named Arsus (Anton Pampushnyy) who gets fitted with machine guns. He laments that one day he may go full bear and never turn back into a man again. This plotline goes nowhere. Arsus is clearly meant to be the breakout star here… and it worked. I probably wouldn’t have checked out this movie if the trailers didn’t prominently feature a half-man/half-bear with a machine gun. Perhaps the greatest sin this movie made is making even the action scenes featuring machine-gun bear rather dull. The sound mixing is awful, and I remember staring at the end credits and being surprised that a sound mixer was on staff. It’s so bad. You can hear the bear bellow loudly, but then the machine gun fire sounds like it’s coming from thirty miles away. The noise should fire up your adrenaline, rather than making you wonder why everyone’s moving like they’re stuck in molasses because now is the time for the slow-mo action sequence.
One of the lead scientists working on the program goes rogue. He injects himself with superpowers, which…. OK, let’s face it. He’s Bane. He’s a shirtless wrestler with tubes sticking out the back of his head. In one scene, he lifts a hero above his head, then snaps his back across his knee like he was in the climactic page of Knightfall.
Years later tries to take over the world. It turns out that, in addition to Bane powers, he has the power to control all electronic devices. New Russian drones have been bent to his will. And… he has clones. I think that he said that they were clones of himself, and steeled myself for scene of lookalike half-naked wrestlers swarming the good guys. Sadly, all the clones are wearing full coverage Rainbow Six costumes.
A super-secret organization called
SHIELD Patriot, led by an icy blonde woman straight out of Rocky IV, has to assemble a team filled with this mad scientist’s old creations to stop him. And that team is called….
Sadly, not only is there no sense of pacing or drama, there’s also terrible acting and bad special effects.
Even the news anchor scenes look woefully low budget, which is really saying something. Now, I’ve seen RT (Russia Today) telecasts. It’s true that Russian media often does, in real life, look so spartan that they resemble the extra credit course you you did for high school. But the news footage looks even worse than that. They appeared less RT and more like Naked News.
Well… at least this movie is funny, right? Like I mentioned earlier, Andreasyan has a background directing comedy films. Quippy dialogue can help you forget the less than stellar effects work, right? Well, if this movie is a fair example of Andreasyan’s comedy chops, I am not inclined to visit his earlier filmography. The movie drags every punchline. In one scene, Ksenia is asked about her superpowers. She can turn invisible in water, and control her body temperature. “And I can also make a great borsht,” she says timidly. The rest of the team laughs pleasantly. There’s another beat, and she continues, “I don’t think that’s a superpower.” At this point I am very embarrassed for every single person in the cast.
To be fair, part of it was from the bored voice actors responsible for the English dub. And yet… the actors themselves look disinterested. You won’t find more disinterested faces outside of a Neil Breen movie.
The team gets their butts handed to them in their first encounter with Fake Bane, probably because our ersatz Nick Fury thought that all she had to do was find the Guardians and win the day. That being off the table, she decides they need some training and fit them with cool new weapons and suits that enhance their powers. That also fails. Fortunately, these guys come with a hidden power: if they join hands, they can form a giant Kamehameha ball to defeat the villian. Only that they run the risk of killing themselves if they unleash such fury.
Oh, no. Not that.
You get the distinct sense that Andreasyan has definitely watched Hollywood blockbusters, what with the climax of the movie taking place in a place eerily similar to the tower at the end of the Michael Bay produced Ninja Turtles movie. At the same time, you also get the sense that Russian theater-goers have also seen the same films and couldn’t help but notice how terrible Guardians looks in comparison.
Opening on a Russian patriotic holiday, Guardians did initially well, probably because parents had some time off and they needed to take their kids somewhere. Hey, is that the new superhero movie with the funny raccoon? The reviews were savage, and the audiences agreed. The movie saw a 90% drop-off in theater patrons its second week out. The Wikipedia entry is bafflingly cautious, as if any slight would attract multitudes of lawsuits: “Russian media presume that Guardians became a box office bomb.” The “Russia media” part has three citations. Apologies in advance if this piece has exposed The Avocado to angry Russian hackers. You’ll know if Haim Saban suddenly becomes our mod overnight.
Enjoy Films actually went bankrupt… though it did emerge from bankruptcy later that year. You can’t keep Andreasyan down.
2017, though, did mark a year that a Russian movie would be the highest grossing in it’s home country… and in fact the highest Russian movie of all time. Only, it wouldn’t be a superhero movie. It would be in a genre that, in pursuit of global box office dominance, has largely been abandoned by American cinema but remains a box office bonanza in other parts of the world. 2017 saw the release of Going Vertical, a sports drama about the 1972 victory of the Soviet basketball team over the US in the Munich Olympics. I guess there’s still nothing more thrilling to Russian audiences than getting one over on the Americans.
But, you know, there’s nothing on this series I would like to review less than a freakin’ sports movie. Give me terrible superhero movies any day, I say. Granted, even with bear men flinging around clones and such this is a very dull movie. Watching this movie is like getting sucked into a black hole: time will simultaneously slow down and speed up. My wife was right next to me and couldn’t be bothered to look up from her phone the entire time, only to exclaim, “That was it?!?” when the movie ended.
No, my dear. That wasn’t it.
There’s a post-credit sequence, too.
Guardians is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
NEXT: Zhang Yimou gives us another hypercolored tale of China’s past (that might also be a King Lear adaptation) in Curse of the Golden Flower.