Let us look back at the history of Russian propaganda films. The standard-bearer must be Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 “Alexander Nevsky,” a Stalinist-era epic centered on the hero Prince Alexander, who drove out the Romans in the 13th century. The barely-veiled subtext of that film, however, was a depiction of Russo-German relations as the war loomed ahead, with a call to arms for citizens and a clear warning to would-be attackers. I’ve no idea how effective it was at reaching its propagandistic goals, but the film itself is gorgeous and filled with inventive effects, and Eisenstein accomplished at least the feat of cinematic excellence.
Flash forward to 2018, and the quality of Russian propaganda films has fallen dramatically. Case in point: “Maximum Impact,” a joint Russian-American action comedy about a top-secret summit meeting between the American secretary of state and Russian head of state, with the goal of shoring up relations between the two countries. (Much like the stated goal of the company that produced this film, Czar Pictures.)
In the film, the only thing getting in the way of the U.S. and Russia becoming best buds is a shadowy coalition between a raggedy Smoking Man-esque American (a Democrat?) played by Billy Baldwin and the Germans (?), who are plotting to frame the very innocent Russians for a terrorist attack. Starring in this picture, and a handful of recent films intent on portraying positive images of Russians, is the actor Alexander Nevsky, an Orange County Putin acolyte who looks like if you asked your grandmother to paint a portrait of Steven Seagal in her community art class, and acts like acting is his own personal hell that he must endure.
It’s not not a worthy cause to portray Russian citizens in a more flattering light; god knows American propagandistic films painted Soviets as the big bad for decades, and that’s not an easy image recovery. But hoo-boy, this movie has some pretty blatant intentions of specifically making the FSB (née KGB) look nice and not shady at all. Whatever, that’s fine. American cinema isn’t short on pro-CIA narratives. But aside from the political implications, you’ll find this film is also quite hateful of women, too. Goody!
Directed by Andrzej Barkowiak — cinematographer of “The Verdict,” “Speed,” and “Falling Down” — this film bears zero resemblance to any film Barkowiak has ever made before, including those he directed himself, like the stunning 1990s breakout Jet Li vehicles “Romeo Must Die” or “Cradle 2 the Grave.” It is as though Barkowiak was body-snatched and replaced with Tommy Wiseau, and it doesn’t help that “Rush Hour” scribe Ross LaManna is recycling some of his worst jokes here, most of which focus on shaming and harassing women and then laughing at how frazzled they get, specifically Kelly Hu’s character Kate, a secret service officer.
When Kate and FSB agent Maxim (Nevsky) — Get it? Maxim-um Impact? — round up their people to take on the pesky Germans together, Kate’s subjected to humiliation after humiliation. At one point, Maxim comes up behind her, puts a giant silver bowl over her head to restrain and blind her, and begins cutting off her hair, while all the men laugh. “That was a $250 haircut,” she throws back at them before finishing with the scissors herself. Hahahaha! (In many cultures, forcibly cutting off a woman’s hair is a means of publicly dehumanizing them.)
Sometimes Kate gets to participate in her own sexualization, like when the teams are watching surveillance footage, and she remarks upon seeing herself that her pants aren’t doing her ass any favors. Another time, Kate gets the nutty idea to jack a car to better chase the Germans, and one of her peers lovingly calls her a “crazy-ass bitch.” For the life of me, I cannot understand why Hu signed on for this film. Perhaps it was the allure of physical comedy and kicking and punching the bad guys, both of which are rarely offered to women actors.
What’s most dizzying about this film has nothing to do with political messages; those are all too clear. Instead, it’s the particularly mean and bizarre humor that boggles the mind. It becomes impossible to decode the joke or what the hell LaManna was thinking.
Tom Arnold as Agent Barnes gets the most confounding of these scenes: Barnes chatters about his enlarged prostate and health issues constantly. When the team is en route to Russia, he interrupts a discussion, wailing about his need to pee. Only, when he opens the bathroom door, there is a teen girl texting on her phone, crouched by the toilet. Barnes yelps at her to, “Watch out!” And then we cut to an exterior of the plane, while we hear Barnes emphatically and vocally relieving himself, ostensibly right over the head of this teen girl. It’s scenes like these that will have you sighing, wondering what happened to the days of sophisticated propaganda.