Review: 'Red Penguins'
If I was 15 years old, my review would read something like this: OMG ! You’ve GOTTA check out this movie!!!
I’m a lot older than 15, but my sentiments are pretty much the same.
Cutting to the chase, Red Penguins is one of the most high-energy, entertaining and astonishing documentary films I’ve seen in a while.
It’s a crazy, crazy story from award-winning filmmaker Gabe Polsky.
The level of insanity makes you wonder if it might have been scripted by Monty Python. But, it’s all real.
It’s yet another case where reality far outstrips fiction for flat-out, non-stop shock value.
It’s a chapter of sports history that probably escaped your attention even if you were around when it all happened in the decade of the '90s.
Granted, some of it was reported by the national news media.
But no one, I mean NO one, has ever been privy to the insanity revealed here in all its juicy, jaw-dropping detail.
That is, until now.
Essentially, it’s about a bold move on the part of the Pittsburgh Penguins to invest in the Red Army (CCCP) hockey team.
To put things in their proper historical context, these were the turbulent years immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union when Russia was mired in chaos, political, economic, and otherwise.
The Penguins saw a business opportunity to invest in and own 50% of the team.
Their goal (no pun intended) was to develop superstar hockey stars that they could add to their roster.
The time was right.
Russian hockey was, pardon the expression, on very thin ice and in danger of disappearing altogether.
They were desperate.
The Penguins knew they needed someone crazy enough and energetic enough to save the team and put fans back into the empty seats of the Ice Palace which was in shambles.
It had been vandalized and left in a state of disrepair.
Some of the former staff had taken up residence in the abandoned super boxes.
The lower level had become a sleazy strip club. Things were beyond bad.
The man chosen to turn it all around was Steven Warshaw a bright, fearless young marketing guy, who (he admitted later) had no idea what he was getting himself into.
Nothing prepared him for what he found when he arrived.
While any other intelligent human being would have turned around, boarded he plane and flown back, he decided to accept the challenge.
And so began a crazy climb out of the ashes and rubble. It would be the rise of “The Russian Penguins” as co-investor Michael J. Fox referred to the team on Larry King Live.
They became known as the Red Penguins.
Desperate times demand desperate measures.
It required out-of-the-box thinking and a marketing strategy on steroids.
Warshaw unleashed a barrage of bold branding stunts.
The giveaways included a free beer night that resulted in scores of drunken, disorderly teenage boys between the ages of 14 and 16.
In Russia, beer is a big draw.
At one point in time, bears from a visiting circus were hired to appear on the ice between periods, with bears dressed as waiters serving beer to seated bear patrons, who proceeded to actually drank the beer.
Strippers skated behind the Zamboni, undressing down to their pasties and G-strings to cheering crowds.
It was “freak show” but it worked.
Miraculously, the stands were filled to capacity.
Against all odds, and in defiance of all logic, everything seemed to be working.
The future seemed bright. But then greed factored in.
In addition to costly embezzlement and theft from within the ranks of the Russian partners came the interest in the Russian Mafia.
Suddenly, everything was spiraling back into chaos.
Without giving away the ending, bodies began piling up before some painful decisions were ultimately made.
You can probably second-guess the ending of the movie, at least in general terms.
There is no Red Penguins team on the ice anywhere. That, we all know.
What you don’t know, is the head-spinning story behind it all.
Red Penguins is an exceptionally good documentary.
One that not only reconstructs a bat-s**t crazy story that seems beyond belief, but also is engaging and entertaining minute by minute.
It’s totally engrossing.
One, incredibly wild ride into what was referred to as the new wild west of Russia in the days following the fall of the Soviet Union.
It’s a story about sports, but it’s also a tale about politics and greed and corruption and some ugly truths about the human condition.
It’s a sobering example of what happens when people are given their freedom and have no idea what to do with it.
It’s a lot to think about.
Red Penguins is a movie you don’t want to miss. Non-stop entertaining.
As an aside, I worked with the Pittsburgh Penguins during those years, producing and directing their award-winning TV ads.
It was fun to see some of the “borrowed” elements that became part of the Red Penguins ad campaign, like the animated footage of a mascot that bore striking resemblance to Ice Berg.
We advertised fan nights and free giveaways, but nothing on a scale witnessed in this movie. It blew my mind.
Red Penguins debuts on demand August 4.