Mama is not sure that Disney should have allowed their Russian language film project to be called Posledniy Bogatyr (Последний Богатырь).
This is because it is difficult to translate.
The choices in the English language speaking world seem to be between the Last Warrior, which sounds inappropriately militaristic, The Last Knight, which is better in terms of thematic relevance and all but conjures up all the wrong visual images, and the Last Hero, which has already been taken.
I mean, you wouldn’t call samurai anything else, would you? And a Russian bogatyr is a Russian bogatyr is a Russian bogatyr, and particularly so in this film, which is a romp though some of Russia’s best loved fairy tales.
Of course, Disney might not be planning an English language release. I mean, they’d have to dub it or something! Still.
The hero of the Last Warrior is Ivan (of course he is), a modern Muscovite who is a magician and a con man who gets unexpectedly dumped in a magical fantasyland version of Russia, and finds himself responsible for saving the day (of course he does).
As the Last Knight goes about establishing his backstory, there are all sorts of pleasing Moscow references such as him living in what looks like a swish apartment in the high-rise complex of Moscow city (an extremely good choice for his character, given that the reputation of the development is mostly built on smoke and mirrors, and everyone in Moscow knows it). He’s the star of a reality TV show. He has encounters with difficult babushkas and his salt-of-the-earth middle-aged housekeeper. He also gets into trouble with VIP Russians and their bouncers, and ends up being chased around a shopping mall with a giant water slide complex inside. And look out for the gratuitous Putin reference.
Mama thinks somebody had a lot of fun with this section. The Last Hero may have been backed by Disney, but it is really driven by a Russian production company, Yellow, Black and White, who are responsible for a number of hit TV sit coms in Russia. Programmes which have also provided both the lead hero, played by Viktor Khorinyak, and the lead villain, played by Ekaterina Vilkova. The local knowledge really shows.
Not that this means that only Russians or people very familiar with Russian culture can enjoy the Last Bogatyr. Yes, if you know your Slavic folklore you will be happily anticipating certain entrances and appreciate the way that Russian fairy tale tropes are dealt with, including the way that this provides a plot twist that Mama, at least, did not see coming. But Slav fairy tales are not that dissimilar to folklore the world over, and the Last Warrior makes no real assumptions about its audience’s familiarity with the stories; each character is introduced carefully, and the plot itself is wholly new. Or at least as new as it can be given the genre.
So was it any good?
Well, the landscape that the heroes spend their time trekking through is lovely. High altitude meadows filled with wildflowers, oak trees and pine forests all around, babbling streams and frosty mountains looming in the distance. Mama was even moved to look up where the Last Knight was shot, and apparently it was actually filmed on Russian territory, down by Sochi and a bit further across in the Caucuses. She can only assume that this bit was sponsored by the Southern Russia Domestic Tourism Board.
Also, Mama and I are both agreed that it is pretty cool that the three most competent people in the film are women. The youngest of these, Vasilysa, (Mila Sivatskaya) is, in fact, the muscle for the band of heroes. She gets to attack people expertly with swords and wear reasonably sensible clothes for a fighting woman in fantasy land (looking not dissimilar to a certain Rey of Star Wars fame to be honest). Sivatskaya also managed the difficult job of allowing Vasilysa’s more vulnerable side to give a bit of verisimilitude to her inevitable attraction to Ivan.
There’s a couple of really good fight scenes and horse chases of the sort that if you enjoy those scenes in the Pirates of the Caribbean, you will almost certainly appreciate the ones in the Last Hero. It is certainly the sort of thing that Mama goes to the cinema for. The problem she had here was that the camerawork in these moments favoured close up jerky movements cutting swiftly between different angles and all the characters involved, which detracted from her appreciation of the action a bit in places. As in, she couldn’t actually see it.
Possibly it was part of the obvious strategy of making the movie as family friendly as possible. Blood and gore was decidedly not in evidence, and the fights were inventive in demonstrating the ways to overcome your enemy without actually dismembering them. Or, in fact, killing them even a little bit. I liked this. I’d been a bit dubious about going to see a film about Baba Yaga. In Mama’s old book of fairy takes from around the world the story of Vasilysa and Russia’s archetypal witch is among the most hair-raising. This, in a book written in the seventies, when Granny was irretrievably eaten by the wolf, and the other wolf boiled alive by the pigs. Sort of thing.
And Baba Yaga doesn’t really improve when you get in amongst the Russians and hear more.
Nothing of that sort here. In fact Papa grumbled a bit that Koschei the Immortal (Konstantin Lavronenko), usually Baba Yaga’s equal in undying menace, was a bit lacking in both manic evil cackling or fighting prowess. Mama, on the other hand, rather liked the calm world-weariness he projected in what is otherwise quite a melodramatic movie, and my Excitable Big Brother thought he was The Best.
Mama liked Baba Yaga best, played by Elena Yakovleva, despite her seven-year old misgivings. Of course she did. Mama is… getting… older… and rather appreciated the fact that two of the more important characters are not, let’s just say, in their first blush of youth. Baba Yaga is extremely grumpy, wants to eat Ivan, and is a master of magic potions and magic creature seduction.
Fabulous, and the latter scenes a relatively neat way to reference the apparent preference of fairy tales around the world to make everything about sex with nubile young women, without, actually, making it about sex with nubile young women. Especially when the Last Bogatyr turned the whole stereotype on its head. Although Mama would probably have cut that plotline out altogether. She suspects some of the scriptwriters of taking their research into folk tales and clear determination to reference nearly all of them too seriously.
Still, at least it wasn’t scary.
As for the rest of the cast, Khorinyak as Ivan manages the journey from being a bit of a cad to a true big-hearted bogatyr hero well, and is also able to handle the physical humour of the role. As for Vilkova, as the evil queen she was suitably implacable and menacing, a dab hand with a bow and arrow, had great hair and turned into a giant white badass owl. What more could you want? In your FACE Harry Potter.
There were actual laugh out loud moments, which doesn’t happen as often as you might think in things that are billed as comedies. And there was at least one joke which the adults found funnier than the kids, which was nice for them. But we all thought the business with Koschei and the rock was hysterical.
But most impressive as a recommendation is that Papa, who is extraordinarily fussy about films, liked it, his quibble about a toothless Koschei notwithstanding. I’ll be honest, this is as rare as an extremely rare thing, and it makes no difference usually whether the movie is Russian, English, French or Japanese.
Of course, he was running a fever.
Anyway, let’s hope that the broad hint that a sequel could be forthcoming pays off. The Last Warrior seems to have done decent business at the box office and been reasonably well received by the critics, so it may well. That’ll give you, what, a year or so to learn Russian so you can enjoy it all too.
UPDATE: And in fact the Last Warrior 2, Root of Evil is now OUT, and you can read our review.
If you want to read another of our Russian language film reviews, click here.
And in case you can’t access it any other way, here is a trailer. Enjoy!
This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Samurai society.
Photocredit: Mama has shamelessly used a couple of interesting pictures she found lying around on the internet to promote this Disney film, a service for which she is not receiving any form of compensation whatsoever. However, if she should not be using these pictures, she is very willing to take them down.