‘Red Penguins’ Film Review: Remember That Time When American Hustlers Invaded Russian Hockey?

You probably don’t remember it, but director Gabe Polsky spins a wild true story that includes Russian mobsters, Disney, strippers and the very weird collision of Russian and American hockey

Red Penguins
Courtesy of TIFF

Director Gabe Polsky’s “Red Penguins,” a wild documentary about the collision of Russian and North American hockey, readily invites comparison with “Red Army,” Polsky’s last wild documentary about a different aspect of that same collision. That’s a comparison that could increase interest in “Red Penguins,” which premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is being released by Universal on August 4, though it also sets an awfully high bar for the new film.

And in fact, “Red Penguins” is a dramatically different film in spite of the surface similarities. “Red Army,” one of the most acclaimed nonfiction films of 2014, was a deep, wide-ranging look at the dominance of the Soviet hockey team in the 1970s and ’80s, and of the recruitment of five players from that team to the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League after the breakup of the Soviet Union. It told a big story, and it told it well.

“Red Penguins” continues that story from a different angle, but in some ways it plays more like a “WTF!” sidebar than a true successor to the first film. What gives it an extra kick, though, is that a “WTF!” sidebar about the intersection of Russian and American interests happens to be awfully timely these days.

Polsky is again examining international relations though ice hockey – but unlike his story of how Russian athletes had a huge impact on the NHL, this version tells a story that even most hockey fans don’t know about.

That’s because it took place entirely in Russia, where the fall of the Soviet Union left its fabled hockey team in a shambles. Playing in a rundown arena with a strip club in the basement (I’m not making this up, and neither is Polsky), the once-dominant team is pretty much a mess in an era in which Russia was trying to figure out this capitalism thing.

So while some Russian stars were headed to the U.S., some American businessmen saw an opportunity in Russia. The Russian national team, they figured, needed an influx of American cash and American marketing savvy – so a group of investors that included hockey fanatic Michael J. Fox sent over a hyperkinetic sales whiz named Steve Warshaw to transform Russian hockey.

The result was very entertaining, with new sponsorships and a new logo and lots of fun and games in the old hockey arena – in fact, Warshaw even found a way to put those strippers in the basement to good use on the ice.

He also found a partner in Disney’s Michael Eisner – at least, he thought he did, or he says he thought he did. (Though Eisner did not consent to an interview, he denied that Disney ever considered investing in the Russian hockey team, despite the film’s pretty significant evidence that the company did indeed consider it.)

Whatever really happened – and honestly, it’s hard to completely trust anybody in this film, which is part of the fun – Disney did not buy in, and Russian oligarchs and Russian mobsters got involved because that’s apparently what they do, and everything went to hell. Which, I suppose, is why we didn’t know this story until Polsky decided to tell it, and why “Red Penguins” feels sillier and slighter than its predecessor.

But it’s also a kick to watch Warshaw, affectionately (?) nicknamed “weird little bastard” by his Russian partners, wheel and deal with a batch of Russians who seem a little more menacing every time Polsky gets them on camera. And in an era in which the collision of Russian and American interests is never far from the headlines, a weird little story about one crazy time those interests collided might even teach us a thing or two.