“Red Penguins” Chronicles The Russian Partnership With An NHL Franchise

The sport of hockey, at least in the United States, didn’t always have the Russian influence that it now has. There was a time where players from the former Soviet Union first came over to American shores and started in the NHL. Filmmaker Gabe Polsky has looked at that before, but for his latest documentary, he’s chronicling a period where an NHL franchise actually went to Russia and tried to save their sport over there. The result is Red Penguins, a unique and entertaining doc that only falls a bit short when it attempts to be overly important at the end. Out now, it’s a quality flick that shines a light on a story you almost certainly were unaware of.

This film, as you might imagine, is a sports documentary about the incredible true partnership between Russia and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an NHL franchise in the Penguins and the famed Red Army hockey team formed a joint venture together. Capitalism was obviously at the center of it, but also an attempt to show that anything was possible in the new Russia. Penguins owner Howard Baldwin sends his top marketing guy in Steve Warshaw to Russia with the heavy task of transforming the team into an entertaining and profitable show. As Warshaw comes up with events that includes trippers and live bears serving beer on the rink, gangsters rear their head. Ultimately, it becomes a look at a strange moment in U.S. and Russian relations during this time, as oligarchs began to make their fortunes and eventually multiple murders were committed. Polsky directs the doc, with music from Leo Birenberg and cinematography by Alexey Elagin.

There’s something about this movie that almost recalls a studio comedy. Obviously, Greg Polsky was attracted to the lunacy involved in bringing sports marketing to a Russian hockey club, and it comes off clearly in the production. The doc has more than its fair share of crazy stories, often involving the eccentric oddball that is Steve Warshaw. A lot of the best moments are tales being recounted to the screen via talking heads, which is a shame considering what some of the available images and videos shown in the film are, but that’s to be expected. It’s no surprise that Disney was looking to get into bed with the Penguins on this venture, since it shares so much with what could be a zany sports flick.

Red Penguins is a lot of fun, but when the final act leans in to the dangers of the Russian mob, as well as trying to tie together the collapse of the venture with the ultimate rise of Vladimir Putin, it begins to bite off more than it can chew. Sure, the mob stuff is important, if tonally at odds with the rest of the documentary, but it’s an essential part of the story. The final moments, however, go a little too far and have a self-important nature that’s at odds with the rest of the doc. It’s not a huge issue, but it ends things on a slightly sour note.

Today, hockey fans, history buffs, and documentary lovers can all come together and enjoy Red Penguins, the sort of true story you’d never believe was actually true, if not for a film being made. The stories and unique personalities on display alone are worth the price of admission. Anyone who loves a good sports doc will find plenty to like here. The movie, minus its small flaws, is a real treat.

Be sure to check out Red Penguins, out now!

(Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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