Red Penguins tells a bonkers tale of capitalism, opportunism, Disney CEOs, circus bears and mafia hits, after the fall of the Soviet Union leaves a famed Russian hockey team open to U.S. investment.
Part of the fun of Gabe Polsky’s Red Penguins, although I’m not necessarily sure that “fun” is the right word, is trying to determine how much of it is true. Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner would suggest that most of it isn’t, but he would say that, wouldn’t he? He’s among the greedy opportunists intimately tied to this bonkers story of a Russian hockey team that begins as a slightly silly recounting of an ill-fated capitalist joint-venture and pivots into a distressing story of unsolved mob murders, the rejection of democracy, and the rise of totalitarianism, exemplified in a chilling epilogue which sees a smirking Putin wish Russia a happy new century as its newly-elected Prime Minister.
But Red Penguins begins, in many ways, with the collapse of the USSR and a sudden shift to a free market economy which leaves the nation in chaos and the sport of hockey drastically underfunded. In what amounts to a kind of merchandising land-grab, Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Howard Baldwin decides to invest in the Red Army hockey team, coached by the militaristic and dictatorial Viktor Tikhonov, and he sends an eccentric marketing expert, Steven Warshaw, to Russia to help turn the team into a money-making spectacle.
And blimey, did he try and do just that. The extent to which Warshaw’s claims and exploits are true is anyone’s guess, but I like to believe all of his supposed ideas, including but not limited to strippers performing on the ice and bears from a nearby circus serving and guzzling the team’s sponsored beer, happened on some level, especially the bit where one bites off a drunk guy’s finger.
This is where Red Penguins gets a bit complicated and you have to start adding the odd “reportedly” and “allegedly” to cover one’s back, since the success of the team apparently attracted the attention of hockey fanatic Eisner, who supposedly saw an incredibly lucrative merchandising opportunity in the Penguins, which he imagined as a kind of Mighty Ducks franchise. The extent of Disney’s involvement beyond photographs of executives with Howard is rather nebulous, and speculating over it could probably get you killed since in the general lawlessness of the period the Russian mafia quickly took control of the team.
Warshaw was a showman ill-equipped for the kind of cutthroat behind-the-scenes dirty dealing that saw a spy installed in his office by the team’s general manager Valery Gushin, who had an unflattering nickname for Warshaw and generally saw him as essentially a good man without much genuine utility – although he has a sense of humour since he happily recalls how much the fiercely dedicated Tikhanov was humiliated by Warshaw’s attempts to reshape his public image by making him the face of a cough drops brand.
As is to be expected in any tale, true or not, that involves the Russian mafia, people start getting killed by the mob. This is where Red Penguins takes a distressingly dark turn, and the team itself works as a metaphor for Russia in general, as corruption seeps into its core, and violence eliminates dissent. This bizarre film tells a tale so weird it must be true, and so ultimately tragic and grim that you wish it wasn’t.