Review: Red Penguins Revisits Post-Cold War U.S.-Russian Relations on Ice

About five years ago, director/producer Gabe Polsky (In Search of Greatness) released Red Army, a film that told the story of the Soviet Union’s famed Red Army hockey team through the eyes of its players. Clearly (and understandably) obsessed with that period, region, and the sport of hockey, Polsky returns to the former Soviet Union to make Red Penguins, an exploration of both the demise of the Red Army team after the end of the Cold War (with most of the best players heading to the NHL to actually make money) and how America found a way to inject itself into Russian sports and either make hockey relevant again and ruin it, depending on how you look at it.

Red Penguins

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Knowing that at one point in recent history the Red Army team was the greatest in the world, the Pittsburgh Penguins formed a joint venture with what was left of the team (including its legendary coach, Viktor Tikhonov) and sent over not a hockey expert but instead Steve Warshaw, a young marketing genius who saw it as his goal to make hockey something worth paying attention to and paying money to watch in Russia. The former Soviet Union was in chaos and its relations to the United States were in constant flux, but it seemed that the mood was right for Warshaw and the Penguins to come in and add some American zing to the process.

Most of the major players on both sides of the globe from this period are still alive, so Polsky has a fresh crop of interviews detailing the negotiations and execution of these wild money-making ideas. But a great deal of this process was well documented at the time, so the wealth of archival footage is beyond impressive, too.

From the second Warshaw steps on Russian soil in this story, a low-level but always-increasing tension begins to fill the movie. It’s almost imperceptible at first, but it’s there because it becomes clear early on that so many of the Russians are lying about every step of the process. With organized crime essentially serving as the ruling class of Russia, corruption wasn’t a criminal act; it was a way of conducting business and running the government and military. Every time a Russian wonders out loud what he did wrong or questions accusations of bad behavior (including, but not limited to, murder), he shrugs his shoulders and casually mentions that that’s how business was done back then.

The footage of the between-period entertainment at the hockey games is extraordinary: strippers, dancing bears, and other extreme acts that would never be allowed anywhere near an American rink. Even the state of the arena when the Americans arrived is shocking and had to be dealt with before anyone could be allowed to set foot in the arena. Naturally, once the sport was a success again and money started flowing in, every two-bit Russian gangster wanted a piece of the action—bodies started dropping, and no one was there to stop it from happening, so America’s heyday in Russia was short lived but exceptional. Even Disney wanted in on the merchandising opportunities that inventing in a Russian team might bring them (the company had movie dreams of pitting a Russian team against the Mighty Ducks).

The reason Red Penguins works so well is you couldn’t write characters this vibrant, hilarious, sinister, or eccentric, and if you tried, people would accuse you of resorting to stereotypes. The lines between politics, entertainment, criminals, advertising, and sports aren’t so much blurred as they are non-existent, and that makes the world that director Polsky opens up so unique and fascinating. If I’d fault the film about anything is that I wish it went into more details about certain elements (the running time is only about 80 minutes)—too much is left to the imagination, when specifics could probably have been given. That being said, the film’s edge almost leads me to believe that if the filmmaker had dug any deeper on certain points, he might have been putting himself in danger. That’s the type of film this is, and that’s what makes it so much fun.

This film is available beginning today on iTunes, Amazon, and all platforms for rent and sale.

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