Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Newsmakers

Russians are well accustomed to corrupt ineffectual public officials. It is after all, the home of Gogol’s Inspector General. So it is easy to see how Russian filmmakers could relate to Breaking News, Johnnie To’s Hong Kong action film about police bureaucrats more concerned with public relations than public safety. Although American filmmakers are also remaking To’s film, Swedish-born director Anders Banke has beaten them to the punch with the Russian-Swedish co-production Newsmakers (trailer here), which will screen during the Tribeca Film Festival as part of their Midnight film section.

Major Smirnov is very good at catching bad guys. Following orders and respecting authority? Not so much. As Newsmakers opens, his team has a dangerous gang of armed robbers staked-out. Unfortunately, they are overwhelmingly out-gunned by the heavily armed criminals, resulting in the death of several officers, including a close friend of Smirnov. The operation turns into a spectacular PR debacle for the department when a patrolman is caught on camera sniveling in fear.

Katya thinks she has the answer. While she carries herself more like a Hollywood power publicist, she is the PR director for the police force, holding the rank of captain, largely it is suspected, through nepotism. Her plan is to turn the capture of the gang into a reality show designed to rebuild confidence in the police. Given her careful stage-managing, she needs cops who take direction well, which obviously eliminates Smirnov from the picture.

Of course, the Russian cop-on-the-edge never follows orders. He and his surviving team-members track the gang to an apartment building and refuse to leave when the PR officer orders them to stand down. As her Special Forces sweep the building, they spook an entirely separate criminal team—a crafty assassin and his uptight apprentice. Suddenly, the live PR stunt turns into a hostage crisis, but at least it generates blockbuster ratings.

Newsmakers might have a veneer of topical satire, but it is really a vehicle for cops and robbers to shoot at each other. Happily, those high-octane scenes (particularly the opening shoot-out) offer plenty of meathead satisfaction. Banke choreographs action sequences quite well and keeps the tension surprisingly high, considering how unsympathetic most of the hostages and senior officers come across.

Andrei Merzlikin brings an effective world-weariness to Smirnov, the loose canon. American art-house audiences might also recognize the flinty Sergey Garmash, recently seen as the anti-Semitic juror in 12, perfectly cast as the stone-cold unnamed veteran assassin. Indeed, the entire cast is reasonably solid, but Newsmakers is much more about shooting than emoting.

Newsmakers might not be high art, but it has entertaining attitude and style. Banke credibly combines the Hong Kong action aesthetic with Russian cynicism in a tough-minded, energetic shoot-out. It screens at Tribeca on April 24th, 26th, 30th, and May 1st.