Break Loose (Vosmerka): Toronto Review

Break Loose - H - 2013
Uchitel brings his customary verve and technical prowess to a relentlessly bleak and violent but also largely familiar story.

The adaptation of Zakhar Prilepin's novel "Vosmerka" by Russian director Alexey Uchitel stars Alexey Mantsigyn, Artur Smolyaninov and Vilma Kutavichute.

A Russian police operative looking for trouble falls for a gangster’s girl in Break Loose (Vosmerka), a brawny and brutal take on the ancient Romeo and Juliet formula from esteemed Russian director Alexey Uchitel (The Edge, Captive).

Based on the novel Vosmerka by journalist Zakhar Prilepin, this story of star-crossed love and the countless ways in which heads can be bashed in is set an unnamed big city in the period leading up to the New Year’s Eve to end all New Year’s Eves, at the turn of the millennium. Relentlessly bleak and violent, this is largely familiar territory to which Uchitel brings his customary verve and technical prowess, though Break Loose finally ends up being not specific enough about either the state of Russia or the passionate love affair that results in all these broken cars and a lot of overtime for ambulance drivers.

Beyond its theatrical release at home and slots at festivals such as Toronto, where the film had its world premiere, this’ll be a tough sell. 

The coarsely handsome German (Alexey Mantsigyn) is an officer for OMON, the Russian special police force. His buddies all work for the special police as well and during their time off, they like to get into brawls so much that they call Ger in the middle of the night so he can jump into a taxi and come down and participate in the mêlée (“quick, my wife’s having a baby,” he tells the driver before giving the address of a gaudy night club where the fight is going down).

The screenplay by Alexander Mindadze, with an assist from Yuliya Pankosyanova and Prilepin, rapidly and convincingly sketches how the young men working for OMON, all former soldiers, are really just a part of the discontented general population who happen to wear a uniform so they can receive a paycheck. There’s a breathtaking sequence in which OMON’s called upon to deal with disgruntled factory workers who are occupying their work place and it becomes clear that German and his peers know most of the people there and some policemen even worked at the factory before switching to their current job, where they’re forced to forcefully remove their former colleagues and friends.  

In the Russia portrayed here, being a policeman is just another way to survive and get a monthly income; none of the OMON members seem to find their personal penchant for violence at odds with their job to protect citizens and enforce the law. The film could have benefitted from more such insights into Russian society but instead the film transforms itself into a brutal and rather clichéd love story after German runs into a beautiful girl, Agyala (Vilma Kutavichute), at a night club, he falls for her and she seems taken by him even though she’s the girlfriend of a big crime boss nicknamed Boots (Artur Smolyaninov).

His nominal love for her takes the brewing hostilities between German’s crew and Boots’ men to the next level, though the testosterone-fueled film is at pains to give Agyala more than even a cursory glance (unlike Uchitel’s delicate etching of the female protagonist of his 2003 feature The Stroll, for example).

The actors, most of them with an extensive background in theater, are absolutely believable as tough street thugs and technically, the film impresses across the board. Stunt work and fights are well executed, while the cinematography of Yury Klimenko and Alexander Demyanenko, often with a sickly green or yellow sheen, finds ways to keep things dynamic even when it’s painfully obvious where the story’s headed.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)

Production company: Rock Films

Cast: Alexey Mantsigyn, Artur Smolyaninov, Alexander Novyn, Artem Bystrov, Pavel Vorontsov, Vilma Kutavichute, Irina Pegova

Director: Alexey Uchitel

Screenwriters: Alexander Mindadze, Zahkhar Prilepin, Yuliya Pankosyanova, screenplay based on the novel Vosmerka by Zakhar Prilepin

Producers: Alexey Uchitel

Executive producers: Elena Bystrova, Vladislav Mayevsky

Directors of photography: Yury Klimenko, Alexander Demyanenko

Production designer: Andrey Vasin

Music: Anton Zavyalov, 25/17

Costume designers: Galina Deyeva, Irina Grajdankina

Editors: Elena Andreyeva, Gleb Nikulsky, Ekaterina Shakhunova

Sales: Wide Management

No rating, 85 minutes.