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cast: Alexei Chadov, Ian Kelly, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Sergei Bodrov Jr, and Evklid Kyudzidis

writer and director: Aleksei Balabanov

117 minutes (18) 2002
widescreen ratio 16:9
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Steven Hampton
Told in flashback, from prison, by Russian ex-paratrooper Sergeant Ivan (Alexei Chadov) this war story is part drama, part action thriller, with subtle hints of satire and very little measure of sentimentality of the sort that compromised other war movies of recent years, such as Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. War (aka: Bonha) concerns the sorry fates of British actors John (Ian Kelly), and Margaret (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), both of whom are taken hostage by a cruel leader of Chechen rebels who talks like a dedicated revolutionary but acts exactly like an opportunistic gangster. Either way, the bulk of the story takes place in a lawless, moral vacuum where Chechen rebels use digital cameras and satellite telephones to help them document their vengeful atrocities, just as the later-freed John (well portrayed by redhead Kelly), diligently video-records all the staggering difficulties, hard-won triumphs, and appalling horrors of his desperate rescue mission to pay a high ransom for the still captive Margaret...

With its semi-documentary format and hard-edged sense of realism, this is a film that stands in distinct contrast to the majority of Hollywood cinema about warfare, or its effects on luckless civilians, uniformed combatants (largely conscripted young men, so many apparently no older than school-leavers, in fact), and the renegade or partisan groups caught in the middle of a conflict, with implications and facets they barely understand. It hardly needs to be stated that this is a tragedy. What is surprising though, perhaps, is the film's great - if not quite grandiose - ambitions.

Although comparable, in respect of its makers' savvy portrayal of the developed world's media-exploitation of in-humanitarian situations in third world regions, to Danis Tanovic's compelling No Man's Land, Balabanov's equally fascinating narrative remains structured like the traditional western adventures that inspired Missing In Action (1984), Rambo, and their numerous imitators. So, does heroic Ian manage to save his beloved Margaret from a fate worse than death? Well, not quite... The emotionally wrenching climax proves to be as satisfyingly believable as it is distressing, and if you're looking for a belated European answer to Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, this potent offering might just be it.

The region-free DVD release has a clean anamorphic transfer with Dolby digital 2.0 stereo, 5.1 surround or DTS audio options, plus subtitles in Arabic, English, and Russian. Disc extras include a brief yet illuminating making-of featurette with subtitled cast and crew interviews, some TV ad spots, and a Tartan trailer reel.

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