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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Crusader' Stakes Claim for Russian Action Epic

As government money dried up for film production in the years after perestroika, Russian filmmakers sought desperately for new ways to lure audiences back to the theaters. They tried a range of formulas, from epic saga to slapstick comedy, with varying degrees of commercial success.

One such film is the long-awaited epic, "Yermak, the Conqueror of Siberia," billed as a spectacular Russian frontier tale but still -- after 10 years of on-again-off-again production -- at least six months away from release. Another example is "Shirly-Myrli," the hilarious comedy filled with gags, puns and political satire, which is doing well at Russian box offices and was directed by Vladimir Menshov, who also did the Oscar-winning "Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears."

In the realm of crowd-pleasing, Hollywood-grade, action-adventure movies, however, Russian filmmakers have not made any serious attempts -- until now, with the recent premiere of "The Crusader" ("Krestonocets") at the Cinema Center and Dom Kino.

With 200 gripping stunts, "The Crusader," filmed in Russia and Turkey, looks just like what it is: a film produced and directed by members of the Russian Association of Stuntmen. The two-year-old asssociation has 120 members, all men, who supplied the film's stunts, including parachute jumps, leaps from rooftops and assorted feats involving cars moving at high speeds.

With fast cars, beautiful women and death-defying stunts, "The Crusader" has all the ingredients of a box-office hit. The final element, of course, is the macho fighter for justice, played here by Alexander Inshakov, who at 48 still oozes enough charisma and glamour to draw in the teenage audience that is all-important for the box-office bottom line.

Inshakov, a black belt in karate and founder of the Association of Stuntmen, not only stars in the $2.5 million film but had a hand in its production and direction as well.

"It's the very first -- the dearest and the most difficult -- baby of our association," said Inshakov at a press conference held at last month's premiere in Moscow. "We never use any computer graphics or other illusions. Every stunt is unique. While Western stuntmen will first check the entire trajectory, make calculations on their computers and erect safety nets, we will immediately try it out."

The film's pace and rhythm are more in line with the expectations of Western moviegoers, who often find sluggish Russian films unbearable. Here the tempo is maddeningly brisk and there are enough twists and turns in the film-within-a-film plot to engage the intellect as well.

"The Crusader" is the story of a Russian film crew that gets stuck in Turkey when the budget of the film -- a medieval romance -- runs dry. Inshakov, playing the actor who is playing the crusader-star of the medieval romance, decides to raise money for the resumption of filming by contracting with some Germans to do stuntwork without insurance. The Russian mafia is on the scene, however, scheming to undo Inshakov's deal and eventually getting him dismissed. Inshakov then realizes that the project was nothing more than a cover for drug trafficking.

Back in Moscow, the dismissed and framed Inshakov embarks on a mission of righteous revenge, doing battle with an impressive range of corrupt militiamen, mafia goons, thugs and ex-cons -- many of them of Caucasian descent, thus perpetuating an ugly stereotype. He also loses a good many of his friends and fellow stuntmen in the course of his righteous rampage through the capital's underworld.

In the end, however, Inshakov emerges victorious, even -- surprise! -- winning the affections of the requisite screen beauty, played here by Olga Kabo. The battles in Moscow turn out happily and the filming of the movie in Turkey resumes.

The final series of stunts end with a remarkable chase scene that includes the heroes' death-defying escape over a moving gasoline tanker that explodes when a car slams into it.

The film even includes a touch of bittersweet irony, when some of the outtakes of the medieval romance end up being re-edited and used, without permission, in television commercials plugging banks and investment funds of dubious reputation.

While "The Crusader" uses the fundamentals of the Hollywood action-adventure film -- the outsider-turned-superman fighting against corruption and the erosion of values -- this Russian production manages to update the well-worn theme and add some raw energy.

"My crusader is someone who has a task to do and goes out and does it. He's easy on himself. He realizes that everything has shades of gray. He's perfect at what he does, but he doesn't flaunt it. He plays everything close to the chest," said Inshakov. "Our society badly needs this sort of a hero to imitate, to fight back the ex-con mentality."

Response at the box office has been good for a Russian-made film, according to the manager of one Moscow theater where "The Crusader" is being screened.

"The film did a little better than all the previous movies we've screened," said Vladimir Borisovets, manager of the Khudozhestvenny Theater near Metro Arbatskaya.

"It was a little bit better; it wasn't exceptional. But the premiere was packed. People are more willing to see domestically produced action thrillers than Hollywood ones," said Borisovets, noting that his cinema was usually about two-thirds full for the regular daily showings of the film.

Some critics in the Russian press have faulted the film for being a mere imitation of Hollywood releases, saying money and time was wasted on the kind of film that already exists everywhere in abundance. Still, films like "The Crusader" are needed for the simple reason that Russians want to see them and the movie industry is capable of making them -- and, in the case of "The Crusader," making them well.

"The Crusader" is showing at the Khudozhestvenny through Sunday, at the Rossia Theater on Pushkin Square from Feb. 9 to Feb. 16 and at the Americom House of Cinema in the Raddisson-Slavjanskaya Hotel with English translation from Feb. 1 to Feb. 18.