THE STORY – Red Penguins tells a story of capitalism and opportunism run amok – complete with gangsters, strippers and live bears serving beer on a hockey rink in Moscow. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the famed Red Army hockey team formed a joint-venture that showed anything was possible in the new Russia. Eccentric marketing whiz, Steve Warshaw, is sent to Russia and tasked to transform team into the greatest show in Moscow. He takes the viewer on a bizarre journey highlighting a pivotal moment in U.S. Russian relations in a lawless era when oligarchs made their fortunes and multiple murders went unsolved.
THE CAST – Howard Baldwin, Viktor Tikhonov & Steven Warshaw
THE TEAM – Gabe Polsky (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
After the fall of the Soviet Union, a strange partnership arose between the American Pittsburgh Penguins and the Russian Red Army hockey team. Marketing maven, Steven Warshaw, moved to Moscow to help reinvent the team in a new capitalist form and was immersed in a world of paranoia and secrets. Written, directed, and produced by Gabe Polsky, “Red Penguins” shows how the story of one hockey team illuminates the instability of Russia during this tumultuous period. While the story is about hockey on the surface, it’s sure to be equally interesting to non-sports fans.
This look at the former USSR as it became capitalist is both fascinating and disturbing. The documentary has an impressive amount of footage from the hockey rink and from events going on in Russia at the time. It also contains interviews with everyone from Warshaw to the team’s general manager to the kooky man who was the team’s mascot. The film itself demonstrates the issues of distrust between the Americans and Russians, as occasionally there are conflicting messages about what occurred between interviews.
This documentary is every bit the wild ride that you might expect it to be. From the Red Zone stripper club in the hockey arena (whose performers were eventually brought into the rink as sort of stripping cheerleaders) to circus bears being used as waiters to bring attention to a beer sponsor, it paints a chaotic and strange world. The Americans involved are still amazed at how much the Russians drank and how differently their world functioned. The documentary even covers how the team became so popular that Michael Eisner was interested in a partnership between the Russian Penguins and Disney to tie in with a Mighty Ducks film.
But the situation wasn’t all kooky stunts and fame. The documentary also shows how political upheaval, like the 1993 Russian Constitutional Crisis, and the presence of the Russian mafia made business difficult for Warshaw and his associates. Not only were they convinced that they were being swindled by their partners in hockey, but they were concerned about the corruption they were witnessing. The film does contain some disturbing clips of footage as it chronicles the violence occurring in the country at the time.
Technically, the film isn’t anything special, though there is one very good scene in which footage of hockey is intercut with that of riots. There is enough variety in the editing to make it engaging and occasional title cards help keep the audience informed of the context. One issue is that the opening sequence arguably gives away too much of what will follow and that the shock factor wears off after a while, making the film feel somewhat one-note.
At one point, Warshaw remarks, “We just did whatever the hell we wanted there,” and he doesn’t seem wrong. It’s a world unlike anything I’d ever imagined (not that I’d ever given much thought to the official Russian hockey team). While it’s nothing groundbreaking stylistically, the documentary does a good job of showing the zany world that Warshaw and those around him dealt with while improving the team. And in the midst of all the craziness, “Red Penguins” captures the tragedy of what the Russian people went through as the country struggled through its transition.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A very entertaining, crazy, and concerning story with plenty of footage and interviews to bring it to life.
THE BAD – Nothing groundbreaking in style and a somewhat repetitive narrative.
THE FINAL SCORE – 6/10