Guardians Review: It’s the Russian Avengers

Guardians is a 2017 Russian superhero film. The early trailers looked promising – fights, explosions, and a bear-guy! It’s the Russian Avengers! Expectations were high, and it did well on its opening weekend… and was so disappointing that by its second weekend, it only took in 10% of its previous box office revenue.

It’s a very formulaic movie. This isn’t necessarily bad – Sing was formulaic too. But if you’re going to use a formula, you have to do it well. You have to add a couple of entertaining surprises, mix it up a little, and maybe throw in some humor that mocks the very structure you’re relying on. Guardians (Sieu Chien Binh) fails on all these counts.

Story: During the Cold War, a group of Soviet scientists experimented with creating superheroes. One of the scientists, Kuratov, left the group due to personal rivalries and a failed project. Decades later, in the present, he’s finally succeeded. He’s built equipment into his own body that allows him to remotely control machines: trucks, helicopters, computers, missiles, etc. He’s got a massive case of resentment and intends to take over the world so his genius will be recognized.

To stop him, there’s a secret organization known as Patriot, under the command of Major Elena (a sort of Russian Nick Fury). They track down four of the superhero Guardians, who haven’t aged. The Guardians agree to help, mostly out of a desire to get revenge on Kuratov for his part in the experiments on them. They get their ass hand to them on their first mission, and get rescue by Major Elena. She gives them some better outfits and equipment, then other stuff happens. Ho hum.

One of the biggest complaints about this film is that the four Guardians don’t have much depth; viewers don’t particularly care about them. In contrast, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a huge advantage: decades’ worth of comics and pop-culture osmosis, so that even if you don’t know much about their superheroes, you’ve probably heard of them. Over the course of several films, the MCU has had plenty of time to build up its characters.

The four Guardians. From the left: Ler, Ursus, Xenia and Khan.Guardians, on the other hand, has four new superheroes who are completely unknown to its audience, and has very little time to develop them. They don’t really try. When Patriot tracks each of them down, they get the chance to show off their powers, but there’s no backstory, like what the Cold War was like for them, how they’ve dealt with their powers, or what events have shaped and motivated them. There’s a half-hearted attempt at injecting a little depth in the middle of the film. They each get to talk with Major Elena about themselves, but it’s not well-written and it’s simply not enough. All you’ve got are four people with attitude. And because the audience has nothing else to work with, you end up comparing them to more well-known superheroes.

So who are the four Guardians? Ler is like a telekinetic earthbender from the Avatar cartoon series, only with less creativity. At one point he covers himself with rocks, kind of like Ben Grimm/The Thing from the Fantastic Four. Later, he’s given a whip, made of… rocks, connected by… glowing strands of energy? Kind of like Ivan Vanko/Whiplash from Iron Man 2. He can twirl it into a shield. Kuratov seriously injures Ler’s back at one point, in a blatant rip-off of Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.

Xenia has some kind of water-power which I didn’t quite understand. She can become invisible or water-like when she’s wet? A bit like the Invisible Woman from the Fantastic Four, only damper. Patriot designs a special suit for her later on. She’s got glowy tattoos, acrobatic skills, and amnesia.

The fourth Guardian is Khan. He covers his face like the Winter Soldier, can punch through walls, and moves at super-speed with super-fast reflexes, almost like he can teleport, making him a combination of The Flash and Nightcrawler. And he’s a ninja. With two curved swords that can slice through metal, even entire cars. He’s pretty much the coolest guy in the whole group.

You know, beyond that, there’s really not much to say about this sci-fi film (phim hanh dong vien tuong). The writers simply didn’t have much creativity, or provide it with substance. Kuratov, the bad guy, is obviously wearing a fake rubber bodysuit and can’t even manage any good facial expressions. His defeat felt stupid. Our heroes get their asses kicked twice and barely cooperate with each other; they don’t feel like a team. Supposedly they each represent a different part of Russia, but personally I like what someone said in a chat: “They’re the four Russian elements – earth, air, water, and bear.”

I could go on and complain about plot details (or missing ones), but… sigh, it’s really not worth bothering with. It definitely needed more jokes. There were a few, but two of the best ones were spoil in the film trailers. For a bad movie, it just took itself too seriously, and it’s not bad enough to be funny. You could certainly give this the MST3K treatment – actually, it’s probably the best way to salvage some entertainment from it. At least when a film has a title like Sharknado or gets introduced as “A SyFy Channel Original Movie”, you’ve been forewarned.

Ursus the bear-man.Ok, so let’s talk about Ursus! (Sometimes spelled Arsus; or Арсус in Russian.) In 89 minutes, his bear form gets about 5-6 minutes of screen time. The computer graphics for his bear form don’t quite gel with the surroundings, it felt a bit like a cutscene from an older PlayStation game – but it’s still pretty good! When he transforms, his head and his arms change, he grows claws, his upper torso gets more muscular, and he also grows fur on his shoulders and down his back. He can transform into a full bear, bursting through his pants, which magically return on at least two occasions. In fights, he mostly throws mooks around, and later he uses a big machine gun.

I can’t really recommend this film, but if you like muscular bear-men or bear transformation – then yeah! It’s worth hunting down just those shots and ignoring the rest. (Everyone else, avoid it entirely.) If you go searching online, the original Russian title is Защитники, romanized as Zashchitniki. Here are some videos you can find online at the moment: fight scenes, transformation scenes, and clips from the special effects reel (jump to 1:23 and 2:27). I’ll hand it to the computer graphics people, they only had a film budget of $5.4 million to work with, and they did a decent job. If only the film executives and producers had hired better writers.

I watched a pirated version of Guardians in Russian that was leaked several months ago, and the subtitles didn’t help much. However, Shout! Factory will soon be releasing an official copy on DVD and Blu-Ray, and I think a video-on-demand version may already be available. People seem to be critical of the English dubbing; I have no idea how good the subtitles will be.

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