Newsmakers (Goryachie novosti)
Russia (2009) Dir. Anders Banke
When the attempted apprehension of criminal gang lead by the notorious Herman (Evgeniy Tsyganov) by Officer Smirnov (Andrey Merzlikin) and his team goes awry, the criminals escape with a huge haul following a public gun battle. A nearby TV film crew captures the aftermath including a shaken cop crying which is broadcast on TV. As a result, the head of the Moscow Police bemoans the poor public image of the police force and approves an idea from an ambitious PR director Katya (Mariya Mashkova) to create a reality TV show to show the public that the police are heroes after all. Following the lockdown of a nearby residential tower block by Herman and friends, Katya sees this as the perfect opportunity to launch her show – but Herman decides to play Katya at her own game.
If the plot sounds familiar then you’ve already seen Breaking News from esteemed Hong Kong director Johnnie To of which this is a remake. Usually it is Hollywood that has the monopoly on remakes of Asian films and they also have a habit of making inferior versions that are homogenised and lacking in substance. This Russian version directed by Swede Anders Banke brings with it some good news – that it’s a very good remake. Not completely a blow by blow adaptation but the bulk of the key elements from To’s excellent film are present here and the translocation from Hong Kong to Russia is a smooth and effective one.
An action crime thriller as much as it is a satire on the rise of reality TV, this film contains one of Johnnie To’s favourite tricks of making the bad guys into nominal good guys against the authorities, which is competently replicated here. Herman and co. are not nice people which is established without any ambiguity at the start, killing any and every one in their wake, even one of their own when he becomes injured. Having evaded capture they arrive at a grubby tower block but the police are soon on their trail, with Smirnov leading the charge, albeit under Katya’s directions, something he resents greatly, believing himself a cop and not a TV star. With the building now under lockdown, Herman hides his men in the apartment of single father Yura (Grigory Baranov) and his two children, later to be joined by a trio of drug dealers. Katya begins to broadcast some distorted propaganda on TV so Herman retaliates by broadcasting footage from the mobile phone of one of his men on the internet via Yura’s PC. Thus we have a temporary cyberwar before the bullets start flying again.
Where To’s film was a succinct 84 minutes, the extra twenty minutes afforded to Newsmakers allows for a lot more time for us to get used to our criminal antagonists, whose cheeky charm and rebellious charisma make them more likeable than the steely and myopic Katya, who represents the worst in corporate smugness, pushing the police chief to the point of ire as she demands her indulgence to be fulfilled. Despite their obvious criminal bent, Herman and co. show some integrity and consideration while cooped up with Yura and his family, telling the kids to study so they don’t end up nasty criminals, with Herman revealing he wanted to be a policeman once. The moral issue he raises with Katya during an online conversation centres on how alike they are in that they both do bad things, but he is more honest about it, while Katya lies through her manipulation of the footage for the media. To’s film was made in 2004 yet this message is as relevant and vital as it is today, while the irony is not lost on us that this point is raised by two countries where the press is subject to certain strict “regulations”.
Anders Banke clearly had a bigger budget than Johnnie To and he uses it to the full, presenting a more bombastic and stunt filled opus that doesn’t succumb to these excesses, employing them sparingly and to great effect with only a slight nod towards hokum territory. Banke, much like To, is keen to emphasise character and story so the viewer is never lost nor hasn’t got some kind of reading on the players in this tale. With the possible exception of Katya –who is a little less cold and self assured than Kelly Chen’s portrayal – Banke’s cast are not carbon copies or even mere “Russian versions” of their Hong Kong predecessors, creating his own, successfully identifiable and entertaining characters, all of whom are played with conviction and gusto by the largely Russian cast.
For whatever reason Newsmakers failed to set the Russian box office alight upon its release in 2009 which is a shame as it is not only a very enjoyable remake that holds up against the original, but it is a damn good action thriller in its own right. Hollywood could learn few lessons from this film as to how to successfully remake Asian films and still make it their own without sacrificing an ounce of the original’s integrity and substance.