BBC Four have been broadcasting some cracking documentaries in their Storyville segment. And now we’ve got cheerleading strippers and beer-quaffing bears in Red Penguins.
Yes, you read right. This film focuses upon the American take-over of the legendary ice hockey team, the Moscow Red Penguins, during the fall of the Soviet Union. Whilst the film is about these toothless, red-faced, nutty hockey players, it’s also equally about American consumer culture.
Guiding us through the story is a curly haired marketing man, Steven Warshaw, who goes down the boozer with the Russians, whilst also shaking in his boots in fear of their mobs. But this sums up the entire documentary: The Americans have the cheek to sneer at Russian culture, judging all the booze and the stripping, but then don’t hesitate to stick both on the ice to try and make themselves more moolah. So, we’re not quite sure who the bad guys are – is it the Russians with their humourless expressions and taste for crime and violence? Or is it the white-smiled Hollywood capitalists, looking to make a quick buck and slap American propaganda wherever they can?
All this cartoonish ridiculousness is offset by footage of the violence that occurred during the demise of the Soviet Union – there’s grainy 90s shots of street fights, mafia violence and cars being stolen. But weirdly, these scenes aren’t the most shocking. That award goes to the Americans, with their money-hungry minds and their capitalist mission.
The Telegraph’s Anita Singh says the film is a “highly-entertaining culture clash, with an eccentric cast of characters,” however she believes the mixture of comedy and crime made the film’s tone “somewhat uneven.” Ben Kenigsberg of The New York Times agrees, saying it “doesn’t always strike a satisfying balance between the glib and the grim,” commenting “it takes a while for “Red Penguins” to coalesce from a haphazard assembly of clips and reminiscences into more than a macho specialty item.” However The Times’ Carol Midgley believes the opposite, calling it “wonderfully mad,” and saying “the story billowed into a breathtaking caper.”
First shown December 2020. You can watch the trailer by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here: