Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Director: Gabe Polsky
Streaming on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play and other platforms
You can’t make this stuff up.
It’s 1990, and the former Soviet Union’s once-fearsome Red Army hockey team, suddenly deprived of endless government funds, is on the verge of bankruptcy. To their rescue skate none other than the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, who not only buy half the team but infuse the onetime Communist flagship with a decidedly Capitalistic approach to selling sports — including free beer nights, car giveaways, and strippers. Lots and lots of strippers.
That’s just the first 20 minutes or so of Red Penguins, the relentlessly insane true story told in this jaunty documentary, a tale that starts out like a Damon Runyon yarn, populated by hucksters and hustlers — but descends into Mario Puzo territory as the Russian mafia sinks its fangs into the enterprise and very quickly ruins the fun for everyone.
Director Gabe Polsky has the good sense to set the stage with a collage of evocative news clips — then sit back and let his collection of characters spin their stories. They’re a colorful group: two former Penguins owners who saw opportunity behind the collapsing Iron Curtain; the Russian general manager who cheerfully, if tacitly, acknowledges he skimmed more than $1 million from the owners; the Red Army general, resplendent in his uniform, who frankly admits he lacked the authority to overrule the gangsters who demanded a piece of the action; and the Russian oligarch, eyes dead even when he laughs, who spreads out his pudgy hands and exclaims to the camera, “Have I killed anybody?” The inevitable answer is yes, yes you have.
But mostly there’s Steven Warshaw, a wiry young go-getter who’s made his name dreaming up off-the-wall promotions for minor league basketball and baseball teams. Tapped by the Penguins to launch their new Moscow franchise, Warshaw jumps the first Aeroflot jet East. He eagerly goes to work injecting his Barnum and Bailey sensibilities into the raw wounds of communist Russia’s chaotic transition from communism capitalism — albeit a funhouse mirror version of capitalism as we know it.
Warshaw, who is also a producer of the film, is a most appealing companion/guide through the saga of the team that became known as the Red Penguins. Appalled by the decrepit condition of the team’s once-glorious Ice Palace venue, he evicts the squatters living inside. The team’s stark, military-inspired logo is replaced with a cartoon penguin on skates. The sparse initial crowds, accustomed to the old guard’s no-nonsense approach to the game, are startled by the presence of a penguin mascot skating on the ice and leading them in cheers (We get to meet the guy in the penguin suit, an eccentric performance artist with a Salvador Dali mustache, who recalls frequently removing his plush head so “People would know who I am!”).
Then there are the strippers, some of whom ride around on the Zamboni machine. Free beers are passed out to everyone, no matter how young. A lucky fan is invited onto the ice to sit at a cafe table and be served beer by a real bear. And a hockey shoot-out results in one superfan winning a car (Fearing being hijacked outside the arena, the winner opts to accept cash instead).
Of course, the Red Penguins are an instant sensation — so much so that Disney approaches the Penguins to discuss a $100 million partnership. In the Wild East of post-communist Russia, that’s a good thing and a bad thing. Before long, the oligarchs move in and begin siphoning off enormous chunks of money. They’re more than happy to let Warshaw continue his hockey hijinks, but the whole enterprise assumes a life-and-death pall. Needless to say, Disney backs out.
But the rules of society aren’t just breaking down inside the Ice Palace. All of Russia seems to be swirling into a black hole of crime and corruption. Polsky presents lots of footage — some of it downright shocking — of the mayhem erupting on Moscow’s streets. Terrifying dash cam videos show cars full of criminals cutting in front of motorists, forcing them to stop, and emerging with guns drawn. Other clips depict pedestrians being pummeled by gangs, shoppers facing empty shelves, seemingly law-abiding citizens suddenly lurching at each other, swinging their fists. It’s a portrait of Russia in transition that few in the West ever saw — and which goes a long way to explaining the latter news clips when an ineffective, puffy-faced Russian President Boris Yeltsin is replaced by the steely-eyed, stone-faced upstart Vladimir Putin.
Delighted with Warshaw’s innovations, the oligarchs invite him to stay on. Otherwise, they add, they’ll kill him. He has a better idea and catches the first Aeroflot jet out of Moscow, never to return. Some of his former co-workers aren’t so lucky: In a grim coda, Warshaw runs down a list of five Red Penguin employees, including one player, who were murdered — one of them shot in the Ice Palace parking lot.
It’s a convoluted story, and Polsky doesn’t always give us a chance to catch our breath before moving on to the next wrinkle. Still, even for those who don’t know a slash from a slap shot, Red Penguins works as a fish-out-of-water tale, a stark history lesson, and a rousing sports epic. On anyone’s ice, that’s a nifty hat trick.