The globe hopping continues. In the past few weeks I have looked at two films from Japan, one from India, an Italian film set in Morrocco, and a French film set in Turkey. With Countdown, I move to Russia, and I must admit, apart from Battleship Potempkin, which I watched as a youngster at school, my knowledge of Russian cinema is piss-poor. During the Cold War, or watching films set during the Cold War, the Russkies were so often the enemy, it is strange looking at a modern Russian spy film where they are the good guys. And as ignorant as I am of Russian Cinema, I am even more ignorant of the current (well current being 2004, being when this film is set) political landscape of Russia. But to fill out a few of background details on which this film is based, here are a some salient points. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has wished to secede from the Russian Federation, resulting in two wars. As a show of support, the Taliban government of Afghanistan recognized independent Chechnya in 1999 and even opened an embassy in Kabul in January 2000. While watching this film, it helps understanding the connection between the Chechnyan Sepratists and the Taliban (it explains the bad guys). But having said all that, even if you don’t grasp these basics, Countdown is not hard to follow – there’s good guys and there’s bad guys and plenty of fights and shooting. What more could you ask?
The film open with FSS officer, Major Aleksei Smolin (Aleksei Makarov), who has been captured by Chechnyan terrorists, making a confession to a video camera. He says: “As commander of the special task force SENEZH I received an order from my superiors to blow up apartment buildings in Burnaksk, Volgodonsk and Moscow. My men and I carried out that order.” The screen then fades to black. Smolin, who has been badly beaten strung out on drugs, and had the life of his family threatened, is confessing to a crime that has not happened.
The film then moves to the North Caucasus in Chechnya, and two Land Rovers are widing around a mountains road toward the border. In the second Land Rover, Smolin is bound in the back. In the front is the leader of this terrorist cell, Saulus Boykis (Yegor Pozenko) . Boykis has with him a collection of video tapes — all featuring Smolin’s confession.
The guide, leading the tiny convoy, stops the first Land Rover nad gets out. He walks back to Boykis and suggests that he go on alone. Boykis reminds the guide that he was promised safe passage through Georgia and into Turkey. But still the guide refuses to go any further. Boykis picks up a radio phone and calls their superiors. The response is that the guide should continue to lead Boykis to the border. But the guide doesn’t get a further chance to lead, because Boykis pulls his pistol and shoots the guide for not being a team player. However, the radio call attracts the attention of one of the Russian security posts. They had been monitoring the signal on that particular radio phone. Now with a location and radio lock, they send two helicopter gunships to intercept the terrorists.
With radio guidance, the helicopters take out the first Land Rover. The second vehicle containing Boykis and Smolin makes a break for it with two air gunships firing after it. As bullets riddle the 4WD, Smolin realises he could become an innocent victim, so even though he is bound, he kicks open the back and rolls out onto the road. Further along the road, Boykis also bails out, grabbing one copy of the video confession as he leaps. The land Rover drives off a cliff and is mangles as it bounces down upon the rocks below.
The film moves to an un-named Middle Eastern country, and to the Ansar Allah training camp in the dessert. The Master sends Hassan (Ramil Sabitov) on a special mission. He is to be working with the Chechnens in Moscow…but this mission is just a means to an end, and hides his real purpose. The Master adds: “Our long war with the infidels hasn’t seen the likes of the battle we’re about to begin. May the eternal city die eternally.”
More globe trotting as the film skips to Gibraltar, and here he meet the villain of the piece, exiled Chechnyan leader, Lev Mikhailovich (Viktor Verzhbitskiy). Mikhailovich is loosely based on Chechnyan Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakayev, who is currently living under asylum in England. That’s one of the things with this film, many of the characters, and the events are loosely based on real events — later in the film there is a siege situation which is based on the Beslan school hostage situation — and as such presents the sanctioned Russian Federation point-of-view. Once again, I am not well versed in Russian politics, and as such I cannot attest to the veracity of these scenes, and as to whether this film is actually a propogancda piece. In fact, it could be argued that my ignorance allows me to enjoy this film more than somebody who is knowledgeable about the events re-created for the picture.
But on with the movie synopsis. Mikhailovich wants to go home, and here’s his plan. Teamed with terrorists supplied by Ansar Allah, Chechnyan terrorists intend to take control of the Moscow Circus, taking the performers and the audience hostage. The terrorist will then demand that Mikhailovich is called to come back to Russian an negeotiate for the release of the hostages — making him appear as a hero.
Meanwhile at a Federal checkpoint in Chechnya, Smolin has been imprisoned by his own people. The video confession found in the jeep wreckage indicates that Smolin is a traitor. At that moment though, and American journalist, Catherine Stone (Louise Lombard) arives at the checkpoint. As she walks through the yard, Smolin calls to her from his cell. He speaks English and promises her exclusive information. The checkpoint superiors don’t like Smolin talking to the press, the the chief sends two guards to his cell to shut him up. As they open the door, Smolin leaps at them and clobbers them. He grabs one of their riffles and moves into the compound. The guards start to shoot, so he fires back — but he fires over their heads. He is not trying to kill them. Stone has made her way back to her jeep, and Smolin runs over and jumps into the driver seat. He drives off, with her in the back, and crashes through the front gates.
After the jeep has run out of petrol, Smolin cuts Stone free. He is now on his own. In some ways this film is similar to the Die Hard films (particularly the second). Smolin is wanted dead by the bad guys. The good guys don’t believe him and want him out of the way too. Leaving him alone in the middle – or to quote John McLane, he’s the ‘monkey in the wrench’. But Smolin has an inside running. He already knows what Boykis is planning. After all, he has already confessed to it.
This is the type of film where it may be more enjoyable, the less you know about the events mirrored from real-life within this film. It’s a bit like Rocky IV. Rocky IV as a boxing film was okay, but it had this jingoistic – almost propoganda piece – feel to it that effected the overall mood the film created. But if you can remove yourself from the reality of it, then thje film works fine. Same here. If you don’t understand the ra-ra-ism, then you can watch this film as a stand alone action film, and on that level, Countdown works extremely well. There are quite a few good action set-pieces. The airplane stunts — all done in front of camera with no CGI — are excellent. The film looks great too. The photography in the Caucasus mountains is pretty spectacular.
Countdown’s well worth a look.