Before I review Furious, Russia’s latest big-budget blockbuster, let me go on record as saying that dubbing ruins movies. When done poorly, actors’ onscreen emotions don’t match those of their voice tracks; oftentimes it’s all too obvious the dub is being performed in a studio by a handful of actors putting on voices. If the script is poorly translate, that only compounds issues. Lending the whole endeavour the air of a mid-’90s video game.
That said, the video-gamey dubbing job done on Furious (De Che Bat Diet) actually suits this particular movie. A historical epic that frequently spills over into full-on fantasy, it’s just silly enough to fit.
Furious (original title: The Legend of Kolovrat) is an adaptation of a medieval military legend. Itself based on the real-life Mongol capture of the city of Ryazan in the 13th century. It follows Evpaty Kolovrat, a foreman in a prince’s army, who suffered a life-changing Mongol attack as a child, and continues to suffer a peculiar form of amnesia as a result.
Kolovrat wakes up every morning believing himself to be a kid again. Back at the site of the attack, with no memory of the life he’s led since then – and, as the title suggests, he wakes up furious about it. Every morning he goes through this experience, and every morning his wife Nastya has to give him a Cliff’s Notes version of the rest of his life. This is no way to live, clearly. But the army doesn’t have a problem with it, so who am I to judge.
Kolovrat is soon thrust into a plot that sees Mongolian monarch Batu Khan (Genghis’ grandson) invading Russia and razing Ryazan to the ground. Along with a team of military men, medicine men, and misfit men, Kolovrat sets about trying to slow the Mongol horde before it can deliver a similar fate to other cities nearby. Cue epic battle scenes, tricksy guerrilla warfare, and a front-and-centre celebration of bearded Russian bravery.
Ivan Shurkhovetskiy directs Furious with a laudably pacey eagerness and starring Ilya Malakov. The movie moves, almost like a fever dream at times, employing some clever narrative devices to blend and connect different points in its timeline. Though more could likely have been made of Kolovrat’s memory troubles, what is made of them is absolutely hilarious. And though the film’s action scenes often come across as silly. There are fun, subversive tactics at play in many of them. Fans of the Ewok parts of Return of the Jedi’s Battle of Endor will be well please.
All of this looks and sounds very expensive, made with the sensibility of a filmmaking kid in a CGI candy store. The film’s spaces, armies, and even camerawork are either digitally enhanced or created from whole cloth in the computer, with cinematography aggressively colour graded to a hyper-saturated, over-sharpened sheen. If the ridiculous choreography and laughable dubbing didn’t make Furious feel like a video game, its post-production definitely does.
This being a Russian film make under the reign of Putin. And even screened privately for the Russian President at the Kremlin. It’s hard to watch without seeing propaganda everywhere. Furious takes a mythic approach to the hardy Russian warrior. All self-sacrifice for the good of the country. And a distinctly negative approach to Russia’s enemies. Granted, the Mongol horde was known for violent conquest rather than benevolent rule. But their depiction in Furious is exaggerate. With the exception of the Khan himself. The only Mongol in the film to appreciate Kolovrat’s heroism.
The horde is depicted as superstitious savages who kill their own as readily as their enemies. While Russians are describe variously as worth five, ten, or a hundred Mongols. At one point, the camera leers over a fat, sweating, wheezing Mongol warrior, grinning as he’s about to slaughter a woman and her child – who then self-immolate rather than suffer such an indignity.
All this aside, Furious has enough going on to render it strangely compelling. So intent is it on making its hero seem cool, it can’t help but exude goofy enthusiasm. Even when the results are unintentionally comic. Kolovrat’s morning amnesia is the butt of a number of solid jokes. As characters frantically try to explain his situation every time he wakes up.
There’s also some straight-up weird shit in there: Kolovrat’s female companion. Send along on the mission to remind him who he is, starts trying to insinuate herself as his wife. While the film’s recurring flute imagery somehow got approved without anyone on the production realising flutes are supposed to have holes in them. Even the heightened, alien translation and dub job elevates the movie, taking it from an arduous propaganda piece to…a pulpy and fun propaganda piece.
In many ways, This historical action film (phim hanh dong lich su) can be compared to recent Indian epic Padmaavat. Both are stories of sacrifice in the face of overwhelming invading forces; both sport lush production values and an emphasis on duty. But where Padmaavat displays a consummate control over tone and action, Furious stumbles, often generating unintentional laughter. Perhaps if you’re a staunch Russian patriot (or president), Furious would be a stirring anthem of national pride. To the rest of us, it’s an absurd action romp with a racist bear.