Filmmakers have used hockey to tell funny, violent stories about the lowest of sports underdogs (think: Slap Shot, The Mighty Ducks, Goon). Now, a documentary can be added to this tradition. Red Penguins is a “truth is stranger than fiction” tale of American businessmen trying to force American-style capitalism onto Russia’s greatest hockey team. The ensuing chaos makes for a fun combination of Bad News Bears sports farce, Goodfellas criminal enterprise, and Three Days of the Condor political thriller. Ukranian-American filmmaker Gabe Polsky skillfully exploits oddball details, interviews with eccentric and unremorseful partners and rare archival footage. Interest in hockey or sports is not required when you’ve got strippers on ice, Disney and the Russian mafia.

Our story begins after the fall of the Soviet Union and the poaching of Russia’s best hockey players by North America’s National Hockey League, as documented in Polsky’s acclaimed Red Army (2014). Russia’s Red Army (CSKA) team once represented Soviet dominance and the nation itself; it is indeed the Russian Army’s team. Now, the team symbolizes its demise and loss of identity and hope. They can’t afford enough uniforms and no one is attending their games. But like any good capitalists, Pittsburgh Penguins co-owners Howard Baldwin and Tom Ruta see opportunity for growth on a global scale. Together with investors, including none other than Michael J. Fox, they buy a 50% stake and crow very publicly about it as capitalist pioneers. They hire quirky, gregarious hotshot Steven Warshaw as the unlikely marketing mastermind to turn Russia’s losers into a worldwide brand that will transform a failed communist state into a capitalist success story for the ages.

Warshaw’s brash, New York style immediately clashes with legendary, infamous coach Viktor Tikhonov and general manager Valery Gushin, but these Cold War veterans (Tikhonov was an army colonel) come to appreciate Warshaw’s try-anything spirit once it actually starts to make them money. The present-day interviews with Warshaw and Gushin (Tikhonov died in 2014) form the bifurcated heart of this film, and their lively, unfiltered personalities relay conflicting stories from the front row of this culture clash comedy/crime thriller. A standout moment is Gushin’s extended, tear-filled laughing fit when asked about Warshaw’s claim that Gushin threatened his life and hired a mafia spy to watch his every move. Warshaw summarizes his conflicted feelings for Gushin and Tikhonov: “It’s hard to be in love with someone who’s trying to kill you all the time.”

In spite of the mistrust and misgivings, we see Warshaw’s fearlessness and creativity pay off. The Red Army becomes the Red Penguins, complete with fuzzy-suited ice-skating mascot. The strippers from the underground club literally in the basement of the hockey rink are brought to the ice to fill empty stands. Free beer is served to minors—and circus bears. Major brands, for the first time in Russian history, pay to advertise. Games sell out to enthusiastic, very drunk fans. Merchandising becomes so successful that Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner proposes a $100 million deal (he denies this, which is news to co-owner Baldwin) plus a cross-marketed Mighty Ducks sequel.

Just as the impossible is proving possible, mysterious new “businessmen” start to arrive, scaring off Disney and threatening the franchise itself. The Americans expected a certain amount of graft, but things spiral out of control and bodies start to pile up. They naively turn to the closest thing to law enforcement they can find, the Russian Army itself, who are in theory their actual business partners, but the Americans learn too late that the mafia is the only true authority. This is Russia’s version of a free market. Polsky uses vitally informative Russian interviewees to explain how it all came to be and how it works, including notorious fugitive Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov, who is currently indicted for his part in a money-laundering crime ring that was run out of Trump Tower.

The timeliness of this obscure, offbeat story of cultural incompatibility is crystalized when the chaotic, embarrassing Yeltsin regime turns over to Putin’s. Through this tale, we learn how corruption in Russia grew to the wealthy criminal state we’re all familiar with by now. If this is how it controls one hockey team, one can extrapolate how it could control anything else it desires.

Interest in hockey or sports is not required when you’ve got strippers on ice, Disney and the Russian mafia.
75 %
Outrageous & Dark
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