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How Russian Action Movies Are Selling War

How Russian Action Movies Are Selling War

For an American, it can be easy to forget how much ideology is packed into the genre — until you watch a film from elsewhere, and see their cartoonish heroes and villains.

Recently, on YouTube, I watched “Granit,” a Russian action movie from 2021. I did this knowing a few relevant things about the film. One is that it was produced by Aurum — a company controlled by one of Vladimir Putin’s allies, Evgeny Prigozhin — in part to glorify the actions of the Wagner Group, a mercenary network Prigozhin founded; the syndicate has been accused of fueling chaos from Syria to the Central African Republic to Ukraine, where Wagner mercenaries have become an increasingly significant part of Russia’s grinding invasion. Another is that “Granit” was just one artifact in a whole trove of content — memoirs, comic books, travel videos — that is variously referred to as the Wagner subculture, the Wagnerverse or the Wagner Extended Universe. Not unlike old American mercenary magazines, all of it puts a righteous and alluring face on going off to kill and die in unofficial operations aligned with Kremlin interests.

But it’s “Granit” and other big-budget shoot-em-ups, like “Touriste” and “Solntsepyok,” that are the best known elements of the W.E.U. They are aimed, in part, at the countries where Wagner operates: As The Financial Times has reported, “Touriste,” set in the Central African Republic, had a premiere at the national stadium in the country’s capital, Bangui. Another audience, of course, is Russians, though not necessarily the Russian mainstream. Wagner movies air on state TV, but at odd times; they feature recognizable actors, but not elite talent. It’s possible Prigozhin is aiming for Russians with a taste for action and weaponry and a paucity of job options — people who might be enticed to fight for money, and who may already see enough pro-Wagner social media to follow the Extended Universe’s memes and internal references.

Knowing these grim motivations is part of why I wanted to watch “Granit.” But it’s also true that I was raised in the monoculture-era Massachusetts suburbs on exactly the kind of jingoistic American action movies that “Granit” is trying to replicate, and so there are certain tropes to which I’m hard-wired to react. When Granit, the character, finally popped up, 13 minutes into the film, and promptly disarmed a bunch of dudes, I involuntarily gasped: He was shredding.

Granit — that’s his code name — is a righteous ass-kicker. He is in Mozambique to help train the country’s armed forces as they combat indistinct ISIS-backing bandits, but he is not there to fight heroically alongside them; his boss even says, “I warn you — no fighting and no heroics.” But Granit cannot help himself. He and his fellow mercenaries whip the Mozambican forces into shape, then shoot it out with the bandits. He also finds time to look out for a local kid who, inevitably, learns to say spasibo, or “thank you.”

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As a movie, “Granit” is bad in predictable ways, echoing your lesser dumb-fun Steven Seagal flicks. Oleg Chernov, the lead actor, has a natural world-weariness, a catlike grace and the kind of nice, big head of which Josh Brolin might approve. Occasionally he makes the insane dialogue work. (“In war, it’s not the guns that decide, but balls,” he says at one point. “The one with the stronger balls wins.”) It is in its hints of explicit politicization, though, that “Granit” sings. “For a Russian, an idea is more important than money,” says one villain. “If you give a Russian an idea, he’ll work for free.” When someone suggests that the Russian fighters are out of their depth in Mozambique, this same villain — now clearly enthralled by the Russians — counters that the Maputo street on which they’re speaking is called Av. Vladimir Lenine. Presumably “Granit” is not carrying the torch for Marxism-Leninism. The street is meant to represent the power and historical significance of Russia in general.

The messaging in this film is so scattered that you may be left seeing signs everywhere. At one point, Granit and the crew smash glass Coca-Cola bottles to build a makeshift booby trap. Clever knock of American imperialism, or a nod to “Home Alone”? In the end, Granit dies on his back, smiling up at birds. According to recovered Wagner documents, a Russian code-named Granit really did die in Mozambique in 2019. But reporting indicates that Wagner soldiers bumbled their way through the mission in a manner nearly the complete opposite of what’s seen in the movie. “The undergrowth is so thick there that all the high-tech equipment Wagner brought ceases to be effective,” a Mozambican intelligence specialist told The Moscow Times. “The Russians arrived with drones, but they can’t actually use them.” In “Granit,” of course, the drones work fine.

The action movie, as a format, has always been great at presenting a worldview. As an explicit recruitment vehicle, the Wagner movies’ closest American analogue might be Frank Capra’s World War II series, “Why We Fight.” But their inspiration definitely comes from the Cold War 1980s, when America was churning out nationalistic stuff like “Red Dawn,” “Invasion U.S.A.” and “Rambo III” — films with an obvious, unexamined arrangement of global good guys and bad guys. More recent American propaganda is known for a neutered abstractness — this year’s “Top Gun: Maverick” is deliberately vague about the identity of its foreign enemy, and while the “Transformers” movies pan droolingly over expensive Pentagon-provided hardware, the soldiers in those movies are fighting space robots. Movies in which Americans save the planet from evil may be part and parcel of a political reality in which cutting the Pentagon budget is a nonstarter, but at their inception, the point of these films is to make money.

For an American, it can be easy to forget how much ideology is packed into the genre — until you watch a film from elsewhere, and are confronted with the cartoonish heroes and villains of other cultures. The Wagner movies don’t ever actually say the name “Wagner,” and Prigozhin only recently admitted that he is the group’s founder. But in September a video surfaced in which a man assumed to be Prigozhin stands in the yard of a Russian penal colony and explicitly recruits for Wagner by offering sentence-reduction in exchange for service. Just as in the Wagner movies, the inevitability of death is front of mind. “Do you have anyone who can get you out of prison alive?” he asks. “There are two, Allah and God. I am taking you out of here alive. But it’s not always that I bring you back alive.” In another portion of his speech, he is more specific. “The first convicts who fought with me, that was at the Vuhlehirsk power station, with 40 people,” he says, referring to an actual battle in Ukraine. “Out of the three dead, one was 52 years old. He served 30 years in prison. He died a hero.”

When I first saw this video, I wondered if a tonal shift might be coming for the Wagner Extended Universe — one in which cinematic tributes to moralizing mercenaries are replaced by a fatalistic social realism. Then I learned that Prigozhin’s production company has already announced the production of a new big-budget feature. Online, Wagner watchers are guessing it will depict the group’s battles in Ukraine. It’s going to be called “The Best in Hell.”

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