So, in yet another film that has been “inspired by a true story” (OED definition: adj. vaguely related to something that happened to someone at some time, somewhere, while pondering something else), Universal Studios is releasing Big Miracle on February 7th. Starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski, Big Miracle relays the tale of three whales trapped by rapidly forming ice in the Arctic Circle and the political hurdles that everyone must jump to save them. While the film is most likely filled with hokum and contrived jokes to appeal to the youngins in the crowd, the odd derision of the Russians stands out the most. Admittedly, the events that inspired this movie took place in the eighties, but this film is a conglomerate of inspirational events and creative fiction, no? There’s probably no point ripping apart a February release that promotes global cooperation as opposed to promoting imperialism, but since the end of the Cold War (let’s say officially 1991, but you’re welcome to say 1989), there have been a wealth of films that still characterize the villains as Russian. For examples, see Salt, Miracle, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Warrior, Limitless, Iron Man 2, We Own The Night, Eastern Promises, Little Odessa, Training Day, Rounders, Air Force One, Mighty Ducks 2, Snatch, Punisher, 25th Hour, and Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Each of these films – and those were just a sample — was released post-1991. What’s equally strange is that we technically “won” the Cold War, no? So, it got us all thinking about why the Russians, Russkies, Reds, and Commies are still ripe targets to vilify on the silver screen.
Question 1: The Cold War’s been over for years, so what’s the fascination with killing, catching, and / or beating Russians?
Bill Coffin: The Russians were our kind of bad guy. Our conflict with them was against the backdrop of nuclear, mutually-assured destruction, which boils down the “us vs. them” equation to a point where our sense of who the good guys and bad guys are therein aren’t too far off from where Hollywood would want them to be. The Cold War Russkies were like the Nazis in WWII movies; a bad guy for whom you had permission to dehumanize entirely. You can’t really do that with anybody else, especially in today’s world – because for every al-Qaeda commander we kill, 20 dirt farmers who lived next door also died in the airstrike, and we all know it. We like beating up on Russkies even now because it is a simpler conflict from what has turned out to be a simpler time. And we Americans, we dig on simple.
Tim Adkins: My cousin, who is known for being kinda pitiless, is finishing a double major at USC in Political Science and Russian. He is on his way to Moscow this spring to study and work there. A couple years ago, I asked him: “Why Russian?” He said, “Because they’re a mean people and that just makes sense to me.” Clearly, he has his own reasons for being fascinated with them, but I think his logic fits here. Whatever it is that makes Russians seem cold, emotionless or simply mean, also makes them easy to cast as villains. And it doesn’t hurt that American kids have had a century’s worth of social studies classes instructing us that the Russians are our enemies. So the short answer is: sustained indoctrination.
Steve Barker: Russians make great villains. They’re rough and tough and there’s still a little bit of mystery surrounding Russia. Who knows what’s going on over there? Especially in the 70s and 80s, they were engineering super humans to take over the world for all we knew. Plus, a Russian accent makes everything sound intimidating.
Dustin Freeley: Russia is just a large, enigmatic country, wrapped in a riddle and submerged in a bottle of Smirnoff. They’ve got major metropolises juxtaposed with scary, pejoratized landscapes like Siberia replete with Gulag camps. And, kind of like contemporary German villains goose-stepping like Hitler’s Nazi party, the prototypical, broad-shouldered visage of Stalin still resonates. Plus, their language naturally sounds harsh, and their alphabet is visually confusing. There’s a familiarity there to any other Germanic language, but there’s something discomforting about it, as if B’s mated with T’s and their incestuous offspring had a fling with an N when it was turned around.
Jared Wade: Soviets are the second best movie villain after Nazis. When you’re making a shallow story, you want an evil-doer who is entirely unsympathetic and 100% bad. Nobody — outside of perhaps zombies — can beat the Nazis, but Ruskies were “at war” with America even longer, so the flick doesn’t have to be set in the 1940s.
Question 2: Who’s the best Russian villain?
Bill Coffin: Ivan Drago from Rocky IV has to be included somewhere, and if Jared Wade hasn’t already beaten me to this one, then he should be ashamed of himself, for as many times as I’ve heard him utter Drago’s iconic line, “If he dies, he dies,” which, as we all know, has kind of become the single greatest Russkie villain line of the entire 1980s. Drago is the perfect Russkie bad guy because he physically towers over Rocky, and still needs to cheat (use steroids, get government support) to beat him. The guy summed up everything that drove us nuts about the Soviets both on the battlefield, and in the Olympics. The irony on that is especially rich since, even though the Soviet Union is a far vaster country than ours geographically, during the course of our rivalry, we always had them outnumbered in terms of population, and by a wide margin. Doubly ironic: Sly juiced to get that big. Not sure if Lundgren ever did. By the way, Xenia Onatopp from Goldeneye (Georgian, sure, but still Russkie in movie terms) deserves some kind of mention for that sexy/creepy machine-gun orgasm she gave herself. Even the other characters in the movie were like, “WTF, Xenia, get a room.”
Tim Adkins: Obvious answers here: Ivan Drago. “I must break you.” Shoutout to Rade Serbedzia, though. You may know him as Boris the Blade from Snatch. Or Gredenko from 24. Or…every other Russian-ish villain from any movie or TV show made after 1990.
Steve Barker: Ivan Drago hands down. Every time I’m involved with some friendly competition, I tell my opponent, “You vill lose.” But there is no better line than “I must break you.”
Dustin Freeley: I’m pretty sure that if Dolph Lundgren or I— D—-, whose fictional biography is nearly as lengthy as Lundgren’s, is referenced more than four times concurrently, he becomes quasi-relevant again or becomes an irritating wraith like that clingy Bloody Mary from Paranormal Activity 3, and that’s not something anyone needs, so I’m going with Teddy KGB from Rounders. His portrayal of a poker-playing Russian boss is comically offensive, but kind of cult-canonical; I can’t play a game of cards without someone “laying down a monster,” “hanging around,” or “splashing the pot,” all accompanied by poor Russian accents. Plus, there’s something eerily fascinating about his sexualized penchant for Oreos. They are delicious.
Jared Wade: Gary Oldman in Air Force One. This movie is near the top of my “If I see it on TV, I’m watching it until the end” power rankings. And while it can be silly at times, Harrison Ford and, more so, Oldman lead to some great scenes. “Get off my plane” is tough to beat.
Question 3: If the Russians are finally obliterated, what group should become the common villain in American cinema?
Bill Coffin: I don’t think any group necessarily should become the next go-to villain population, but my guess is that the English will become that group. Really, they have been in the background as a default bad guy for a long time now. Although it’s worth noting that usually it’s not The British or The English, as they were in The Patriotheart. More commonly, it’s that single mastermind bad guy who is so sophisticated, he’s suspect, so sly he’s smug, and inevitably…he sports a British accent. As a nation, we have this deeply ground suspicion of our national father-figure, and it’s why for every James Bond, we have a dozen or more villains who either are either crappy American actors putting on crappy American accents, or really good British actors playing non-British roles (Ian McKellen’s Magneto, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter) but letting their British accent seep through and thereby lend a certain quality to their villainy that we Americans respond to strongly when we can’t figure out who else in the world we ought to be carpet bombing.
Tim Adkins: One thing that makes Russians so effective as American foils is that they’re pale-skinned, which reduces or eliminates a lot of xenophobic subtexts. They’re culturally neutral in precisely the right way. As such, I don’t think there’s any one group of people that can replace them. While machines and aliens have been easy enemies for similar, acultural reasons, the people who really make the best antagonists for Americans are other Americans. We’re just never gonna get over the Civil War.
Steve Barker: Middle Easterners seem to have taken the Russian’s place in action movies, but until Middle Easterners learn how to play hockey, we should keep looking. I recently watched The Cold War on Ice about the 1972 8-game series between Canada and Russia and was close to tears by the end. And of course, Miracle is a great sports movie. I can’t see a great athletic rivalry involving the Middle East. It’s hard to imagine Emilio Estevez leading a gang of lovable misfits against an evil team of Middle Eastern hockey players. Luckily, American movie goers will never tire of the big scary, vodka drinking Russian whether there’s a war going on or not.
Dustin Freeley: Any exotic-looking group is bound to draw scrutiny, and magnify the whole “America is racist” thing. Sure, there are plenty of Middle-Eastern villains in television and cinema now, but the third act often reveals that many of them are funded by American government or American radicals, so why not just cut to the chase and start with Iowa.
Jared Wade: Should? Bankers. Will (and maybe have)? Dem damn Moooslims. Like the Nazis, terrorists as portrayed in crappy action movies, are pure evil. The more the hero kills, the more the audience will like the movie.