'The Russian Five': Film Review

Courtesy of Film
Scores a goal.
5/3/2019

Joshua Riehl's documentary recounts the story of how five Russian hockey players helped revive the fortunes of the Detroit Red Wings.

It sounds like a spy thriller, and for at least some of its running time, it is. Joshua Riehl's documentary tells the story of the 1990s resurrection of the Detroit Red Wings thanks to the importation of Russian ice hockey players. While The Russian Five will have the most appeal to Detroit hockey fans (the reactions the film receives in that town will surely be clamorous), the film weaves enough social, political and personal themes into its mix to make it interesting even for those who mainly think of "hockey puck" as a Don Rickles insult.

Actor Jeff Daniels, a Michigan native and marquee name recruited to provide a fan's perspective, says in the film, "The Red Wings have always been a salve for the city of Detroit." But in the 1980s, both the city and the team were in a bad way. The Red Wings hadn't won a championship since 1955, and were derisively referred to as the "Dead Wings."

Enter a new owner, Mike Ilitch, the founder of the pizza chain Little Caesars, and a new general manager, Jimmy Devellano. The team's fortunes began to change after Devellano had the inspired idea to pick Russian hockey star Sergei Federov in the 1989 NHL draft. "I knew there were good players in Europe, especially Russia," he says. "The problem was, there was an Iron Curtain."

It was indeed was a risky move, especially since there was no guarantee that Federov would even be allowed to leave his country. Devellano asked a local sports reporter who knew Russian to make contact, and in a series of machinations worthy of John Le Carré and depicted in a series of animated interludes, Federov managed to enter the U.S. and join the team. He was eventually followed by four compatriots: Vladimir Konstantinov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Igor Larionov.

The Russian players were not exactly greeted with open arms by the fans or their American teammates, the latter of whom were resentful of the arrivals who didn't even know any English. But the Russians' skills on the ice soon won everyone over. "We had five Russian players now, and you wondered, how did we ever do without them?" says Devellano. They brought a different style of playing with them, known as "keep away," that involved constant passing of the puck. Even players for rival teams were impressed. "I hated him," says Wayne Gretzky, referring to Konstantinov, adding with a smile, "That's a compliment."

Fortified with the Russian players, the Red Wings eventually went on to win their first championship in 42 years and won two more before the decade was over. The documentary chronicles the team's triumphs in uplifting fashion, although the segment would have been more effective if the filmmaker hadn't succumbed to the cliched use of Queen's "We Are the Champions" to accompany it.

The near-fatal injury of Konstantinov in a limousine accident that also seriously hurt the team's masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov provides a dramatic coda to the proceedings, as well as a tearjerker ending that will prove moving even to non-fans.

Production companies: Gold Star Films, Muse Production House, Get Super Rad, Lucky Hat Entertainment, Arts + Labor
Director: Joshua Riehl
Screenwriters: Keith Gave, Joshua Riehl, Jason Wehling
Producers: Jenny Feterovich, Steve Bannatyne, Jason Wehling, Keith Gave, John Dean, John Aldrich, Raisa Churina
Directors of photography: E.J. Enriquez, Chris Rosik
Editor: David Fabelo
Composer: Wayne Kramer

102 minutes