INSANITY ON ICE

Fun doc­u­men­tary re­vis­its a wild col­li­sion of Rus­sian hockey and U.S. huck­sters

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - RICHARD ROEPER MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@sun­times.com | @RichardERo­eper

Just a few months ago, a lot of folks (in­clud­ing yours truly) were all jazzed up about a fic­tional adap­ta­tion of the Net­flix do­cuseries “Tiger King” to the point where we were writ­ing up pieces about our dream casts to play the cast of trashy char­ac­ters.

For­get “Tiger King.” I’m over “Tiger King.” I want to see a big-screen, star-stud­ded adap­ta­tion of “Red Pen­guins.”

You want to talk about a wild and crazy movie, based on true events, brim­ming with larger-than-life char­ac­ters and made-forthe-movies sto­ry­lines? “Red Pen­guins” has it all. It’s a pe­riod-piece, un­likely un­der­dog sports story crossed with a dark com­edy that meets an in­ter­na­tional farce with a sud­den dose of mob vi­o­lence and in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized cor­rup­tion.

Even if we never get the David O. Russell or Oliver Stone or Adam McKay adap­ta­tion, we’re gifted with for­mer Chicagoan Gabe Pol­sky’s in­sanely en­ter­tain­ing, WTF-wor­thy, end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing doc­u­men­tary. A fol­lowup of sorts to Pol­sky’s bril­liant 2014 “Red Army,” which told the story of the Soviet Union na­tional hockey team’s dom­i­nance from the 1950s to the 1990s, “Red Pen­guins” has a strik­ingly dif­fer­ent (and pitch-per­fect) tone, as Pol­sky ex­pertly un­winds the truthis-stranger-than-fic­tion story of what hap­pened to high-level hockey team af­ter the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

In short: It crum­bled in a heap. The gov­ern­ment-run arena in Moscow fell into filthy dis­re­pair, with barely func­tion­ing bath­rooms. (How­ever, a seedy strip club con­tin­ued to op­er­ate in the base­ment of the arena, I kid you not.) As some Rus­sian stars fled to the NHL, fans lost in­ter­est in the once-hal­lowed game, and games were played in front of sparse, un­in­ter­ested crowds.

En­ter a group of North Amer­i­can in­vestors, led by the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins NHL club and in­clud­ing ac­tor and hockey su­per­fan Michael J. Fox, who pur­chased 50% of the team, pro­vided an in­flux of much-needed cash, and sent a young and brash mar­ket­ing whiz named Steve War­shaw to Rus­sia to lit­er­ally re­brand the team (they be­come the Red Pen­guins, com­plete with goofy, Amer­i­can-style mas­cot) and pump en­ergy into old-school hockey.

For a time, War­shaw be­comes a source of great amuse­ment and even some­thing of a folk hero, thanks to his in­no­va­tive mar­ket­ing tech­niques, which in­clude bring­ing the afore­men­tioned base­ment strip­pers up­stairs to the arena to dance be­tween game pe­ri­ods; host­ing “free beer nights,” which at­tracted hordes of teenage fans; ac­tual danc­ing bears serv­ing drinks, and big prize give­aways. Why, you could even get your com­pany’s logo on the team’s jerseys or hel­mets for a fee! (Imag­ine if they tried to do that to­day in Amer­i­can sports. Oh wait.)

“We are the only arena that has clean bath­rooms and free toi­let pa­per,” says War­shaw in an early 1990s in­ter­view. “[Fans are] is­sued two me­ters of toi­let pa­per as they en­ter the bath­room. This is so they don’t steal the rolls.”

A hero for the times, in­deed. Even­tu­ally, though, War­shaw was told by a per­son in a po­si­tion of au­thor­ity he might want to go back home, what with the $6,500 bounty on his head cour­tesy of the Rus­sian mafia af­ter he re­fused their of­fer to come work for them.

Like I said: THIS IS A MOVIE. Pol­sky mas­ter­fully weaves in archival footage with present-day in­ter­views with War­shaw (who now works for Madi­son Square Gar­den and has as much hy­per­ki­netic en­ergy as he did in 1993); leg­endary Rus­sian de­fense­man turned coach Vik­tor Tikhonov, who is al­ways smil­ing and laugh­ing and yet ex­udes a per­sona akin to a vil­lain in a Liam Nee­son film; long­time Red Army (and then Red Pen­guins) GM Valery Gushin, who al­legedly skimmed more than $1 mil­lion in prof­its from the op­er­a­tion in a sin­gle year; for­mer Pen­guins own­ers Howard Bald­win and Tom Ruta, and even a Rus­sian Army higher-up who scoffs when asked why the mil­i­tary didn’t in­ter­cede when the Rus­sian mafia stuck its blood-soaked hands in every facet of the team’s op­er­a­tions. I never had any prob­lem with the crim­i­nals, he says. If they paid on time then the ar­range­ment worked.

With the re­vi­tal­ized fran­chise pack­ing the arena and rak­ing in the cash, the Rus­sian mob, or “busi­ness­men” as they re­fer to them­selves, brazenly moved in and ex­erted their au­thor­ity. “Red Pen­guins” starts to look like a non-fic­tion ver­sion of a Scors­ese movie as we see the butchered re­mains of a num­ber of fig­ures who were per­ceived to have crossed the mob, from one of the most well-known TV per­son­al­i­ties in the coun­try to a team pho­tog­ra­pher who in­ad­ver­tently cap­tured the im­ages of some mob bosses in the back­ground of a pic­ture. Mad­ness.

Mean­while, there was chaos in the streets just out­side the arena, to the point that when a lucky fan won a $30,000 Jeep, he im­me­di­ately ne­go­ti­ated a cash pay­ment of $10,000 in lieu of the ve­hi­cle be­cause he knew he’d be car­jacked the mo­ment he drove out of the arena. To para­phrase one of War­shaw’s mar­ket­ing slo­gans, it was the Wild, Wild East — and thanks to this su­perb film from di­rec­tor Pol­sky, we now have the de­fin­i­tive record of one of the cra­zi­est chap­ters in the his­tory of ice hockey.

Upon fur­ther re­view, maybe Hol­ly­wood should leave well enough alone. It would be aw­fully dif­fi­cult for any work of fic­tion to outdo the truth.

UNIVER­SAL PIC­TURES

“Red Pen­guins” looks back at when U.S. in­vestors used mar­ket­ing gim­micks, in­clud­ing a goofy mas­cot, to pump en­ergy into Rus­sia’s with­er­ing na­tional hockey team.

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