Studies of Russian cinema tend to be studies of Soviet cinema — classics from the glory days (such as they were) of the communist powerhouse. Russia has moved on, though, both cinematically and culturally (though Vladimir Putin would love if that wan’t the case), and modern Russian cinema is a very different beast than the cinema from which it has grown. And what could be more different from Soviet era cinema than being almost exactly like modern American cinema? Or maybe, if we don’t want to stick with the usual Cold War comparison, let’s say modern South Korean cinema. Oh wait…there’s a Cold War connection there too, isn’t there? Anyway, the point is, modern Russian cinema — at least the big budget version — is highly polished, very slick, slightly soulless, and if you replaced the Russian language with English, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that Apocalypse Code wasn’t a minor Hollywood blockbuster.
This isn’t necessarily a condemnation, mind you. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t really have a problem with bloated, big budget blockbusters. I don’t even mind soulless and formulaic — I liked both Tomb Raider films, after all, and all of the Underworld and Resident Evil movies. So I don’t carry the indy film fan baggage of feeling the need to hate the franchises and tent pole films. And not surprisingly, there is much in modern Russian cinema, which strives so hard to attain the lofty production values of a Hollywood blockbuster, that delights me. Wolfhound, their stab at epic fantasy, delighted me to no end. Their modern space adventure, Inhabited Planet…well, I don’t want to spoil things since that’s on the docket for the near future. And Apocalypse Code, made in the spirit of the Daniel Craig Bond films or the Mission: Impossible movies, is a fun if generic piece of espionage adventure that replaces the likes of Daniel Craig or Tom Cruise with a gorgeous Russian woman in slinky cocktail dresses and lingerie. Why were these people our enemies for so many decades???
Said woman is Ukrainian born actress Anastasiya Zavorotnyuk, who stars here as FSB agent Mari. When first we meet her, she is assigned to masquerade as a potential addition to the harem of terrorist Jaffad Ben Zayidi, who has spent a fortune acquiring four nuclear weapons and hiding them in four different cities to be detonated at his leisure. The mission goes awry, however, when it turns out Zayidi might have had a change of heart and wants to mend his terrorist ways even if his accomplice, the shadowy Executioner, does not. Zayidi’s potential reformation is cut short, however, when his compound is besieged and he is blown up before he can confess to Mari who The Executioner is — leaving the world with four warheads in undisclosed locations, primed to explode.
Needless to say, Mari is tasked with picking up the admittedly difficult to find trail and locating the bombs before The Executioner can set them off. Dogging her every step of the way is a group of nasty CIA agents who totally fell for her harm shtick and think she is a terrorist — the inclusion of which might tempt you to cite them as anti-American propaganda if US action cinema itself wasn’t packed with shady CIA villains. Because someone got a decent budget (though still minuscule when compared to the average American blockbuster’s budget — which is a moot comparison, since the GDP of most sovereign nations is minuscule compared to the budget of the average American blockbuster), Mari is immediately off to Paris in an elegant dress and nice car, following the only lead they have: a banker named Lui (Swiss-born French actor Vincent Perez, from The Crow: City of Angels and Queen of the Damned), who had ties to Zayidi.
In the classic mold of Eurospy films from the 1960s, the movie then takes advantage of the relatively small (compared to, say, Russia or the United States) distances between European Union countries to lend itself a jet set feel on a modest budget as the action jumps from Paris to Italy and finally the dramatic landscapes of Norway, with occasional visits back to Russia and The Ukraine whenever it’s time to set off some pyro. To make sure we have a thin excuse for all this globe trotting, the plot tells us that the code to set off the bombs has been split nto three pieces, with an assortment of clues leading to each segment of the code. It seems to me that the loss of any portion of the code would render the threat of the bombs moot, but rather than just destroying her part of the code (or substituting a fake one), Mari and the FSB hold on to it so that they can eventually have it taken from them by The Executioner (whose identity is not much of a surprise), leading to the requisite race against the clock to stop the detonations.
How did Luc Besson not make this? It has all the hallmarks of one of his Europafilm action fests, the ones that continue to destroy French cinema and delight me to no end. The action isn’t quite a frenetic, but the overall spirit is the same — as is the disregard for the logic of what should be a very straight-forward plot. It is a fairly shallow but thoroughly entertaining romp, and if it stumbles upon the occasional political statement every now and then, I think that happens purely because it’s so dedicated in following the tropes of the genre, rather than it being the intent of the script. The intent of the script, then, is mostly to have good looking people go to good looking locations so they can shoot at each other, drive fast cars, and blow things up — a political philosophy I support 100%. With the somewhat convoluted plotting and the pointless MacGuffin serving to pad out the movie to a decent running time, hoping that style and cool will convince people to overlook the obvious, this is truly a worthy heir to the Eurospy genre.
Anastasiya Zavorotnyuk shoulders the film well, bringing a perfect mix of sex appeal, physicality and intelligence (or as much intelligence as a kind of dumb action movie can muster) to the role. She seems custom made for the espionage genre, which these days seems best left in the hands of women in their thirties or older. Someone team Zavorotnyuk up with Angelina Jolie (Salt, Mr. and Mrs Smith), Helen Mirren (Red, The Debt), and her fellow Ukrainian Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace, Hitman), and I guarantee you I will see that movie multiple times. Hell, might as well raid the television show Covert Affairs and get Kari Matchett and Piper Perabo. Ehh, anyway, where was I?
Oh, so Anastasiya Zavorotnyuk. Yeah, I’d like to see more action and spyjinks from her. I know she caused some sort of a stir on the television show My Fair Nanny, but that stir has to do with understanding the differences and arguments between Russians and Ukrainians, a battle on which I have only the most tenuous grasp despite living in a heavily Russian and Ukrainian neighborhood. Plus, I’m not going to watch a show called My Fair Nanny, which I am willing to bet has a lot fewer explosions, gunships, guns tucked in garter belts, and karate fights than Apocalypse Code. Zavorotnyuk’s co-stars are a generally able lot all playing characters whose familiarity as tropes of the spy genre cross international boundaries. Oskar Kuchera is the nervous, wisecracking computer genius who aids Zavorotnyuk’s glamorous spy. Vladimir Menshov is her stern but caring FSB boss, and Vincent Perez is the standard issue “Eurotrash guy who is still kind of likable.” Everything is pretty familiar, everything is ably executed, and as I’ve said before, I am almost always happy with well-executed formula.
Like Luc Besson and his stable of French directors, Vadim Shmelev keeps the movie moving along fast enough so that you don’t have that much time to stop and ponder the massive gaps in logic. Minus the language differences, you could drop Shmelev in alongside the likes of Olivier Megaton, Pierre Morel, or Louis Leterrier (I love them all) and be none the wiser. It’s got the same over-the-top, carefree atmosphere and a sense of playful fun. Shmelev’s work on Apocalypse Code is fleet-footed and slick enough that I’m interested in checking out his other espionage actioner, Moscow Mission. He’s also most recently been the director on a Russian espionage show, Lektor. He makes the most of the budget he has at his disposal for Apocalypse Code, kicking things off with a huge explosion and an action scene full of gunfire, helicopters, tanks, and trucks smashing through walls. While the rest of the movie doesn’t maintain that level of carnage, it still maintains the energy level, thanks in no small part to its focus on sportscars, breathtaking European scenery, and Zavorotnyuk shooting the place up while in exquisite clothing.
I suppose that, as Pauline Kael did with Luc Besson, some could see a movie like Apocalypse Code as the death of Russian cinema. All those serious explorations of the human condition and the human soul, the eternal struggle of the state versus the individual, those slow-moving and contemplative works of art — all that gets swept away like a Czarist’s riches during the Revolution. In it’s place is a movie that is glossy, pretty, dumb, shallow, gratuitous, and sexy and that could have been made just as easily in France, the United States, England, or South Korea. But you know me. I like fun, dumb, sexy action films. I like expertly executed cliche. I like gorgeous, well-armed Ukrainian women in lingerie. I like Eurotrash dudes in sportscars. And I liked Apocalypse Code. A lot. If you are searching for insight into the Russian soul, or a smart and tautly written thriller that explores the complicated nature of Russian covert operations in a post-Soviet Russia that still has tendencies toward totalitarian government — well, I am sure that movie will be very good and fascinating when it’s made. Apocalypse Code is more interested in setting helicopters on fire and having Anastasiya Zavorotnyuk kick Vincent Perez through windows. And I’m fine with that.
Release Year: 2007 | Country: Russia | Starring: Anastasiya Zavorotnyuk, Vincent Perez, Vladimir Menshov, Oskar Kuchera, Aleksey Serebryakov, Oleg Shtefanko, Rony Kramer, Jay Benedict, JJ Barbie, Naeim Ghalili, Sergey Gazarov, Malvina Tretyakova, Ivan Shabaltas, Anatoliy Kotenyov, Aleksandr Tyutin | Screenplay: Denis Karyshev, Vadim Shmelev | Director: Vadim Shmelev | Cinematography: Dayan Gaytkulov | Music: Dmitry Dankov | Producer: Sergei Zhigunov