While it is not unheard of for the fantastic cinema of Russia to make its way to the west – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris in 1972, Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch in 2004 – it is at most a rarity for it to receive wide distribution. A consciously commercial proposition which never forgets its roots, Sarik Andreasyan’s Guardians (Защитники) arrives on the back of the atom bombs which dropped hot and the cold war which followed, prompting the illegal genetic experiments of the secret Patriot programme.
The surviving creations of that programme scattered and living in anonymity, Ler (Sebastien Sisak), able to manipulate and control rocks, a hermit in the Khor Virap Monastery in Armenia, Arsus (Anton Pampushnyy), the were-bear, a solitary woodsman in Putorana in northern Siberia, the speeding master of bladed weapons Khan (Sanzhar Madiyev) in southern Kazakhstan, while amnesiac Kseniya (Alina Lanina) uses her invisibility and acrobatic skills as a circus performer in Moscow.
Reluctantly brought back together by Major Elena Larina and Major-General Nikolai Dolgov (Valeriya Shkirando and Vyacheslav Razbegaev), after years in the wilderness Patriot is back in action due to the imminent threat of August Kuratov (Stanislav Shirin), a mutant like them whose power extends across all machinery which he can bend to his will and control, seizing military equipment to form an army with which he is marching upon Moscow.
Structured without subtlety, the influences are clear, the mutants R-Men rather than X-Men and rapidly assembled over the course of thirty minutes where Marvel would have given each their own movie (except perhaps Kseniya who would have to wait another decade for a lead role) in order to get straight to the knockdown dragouts and epic explosions as the Moscow skyline is remodelled by Kuratov, the film quite literally a blockbuster.
With no expense spared in any aspect of the production, this may be a knock off but it is far from a mockbuster, though that lack of restrictions also has its drawbacks, Andreasyan never having to solve a problem with creativity rather than cash. Accordingly, like many superhero films, with Arsus and Kseniya fully digital when empowered there are some moments when Guardians skirts becoming akin to watching someone else play a videogame.
Fortunately Sisak, Pampushnyy, Madiyev and Lanina make as strong a team as Ler, Arsus, Khan and Kseniya, and while they can be a handful they are not too much for Shkirando’s stern Major Larina which leaves only the crucial role of Kuratov underdeveloped, his standard plan of downloadable global domination backed up by a clone army never elevating him above a pathetically dull villain out to settle grudges.
The plot pretty much announced by the dialogue and devoid of effective twists or surprises, the only attempt at such accelerated past so swiftly it has no actual impact on events, Guardians still manages to be a bold and entertaining film with no deeper intentions beyond piling on the cheese to cover up the vacuum where a more subversive film might conceal some subtext.
While it was never likely that the Russian political climate would encourage a studio to examine the existence of a brotherhood hidden in plain sight bonded in their different outlooks which differ from the accepted norm as did Bryan Singer‘s X-Men films, nor does Andrei Gavrilov’s script offer any Soviet approved substitute though the translations would likely have mangled any message anyhow.
Graceless and absent of nuance, the subtitles do no favours to the cast, with Arsus attempting to express his fears about losing himself in “full bear mode” as backstories and exposition tumble out in scenes shoehorned into the narrative before Kuratov announces “Soon the world will know that I am a genius, not a traitor,” kicking off the epic finale with just enough time for a training montage featuring weapons and costume upgrades.
While on the whole Guardians lacks the wit of the Joss Whedon scripts it emulates it is not without its moments, and although it is unlikely anyone realised the world was crying out for a military-grade heavily-armed were-bear assault, when it arrives it is in fact just what the film needs. Marvel perhaps need not be concerned by their Eastern bloc cousins just yet, but they acquit themselves well in their first adventure and certainly better than DC’s attempt to launch their franchise.