Back in 1994, Nikita Mikhalkov co-wrote, co-produced, directed and starred in a film entitled Burnt by the Sun. Set immediately prior to World War II, the film told of a vicious love triangle featuring a beautiful young woman, the famous revolutionary military commander she married and the ambitious young musician to which she was once engaged. Beautifully shot and imbued with a (then) refreshingly nuanced vision of 20th Century Russian history, the film not only won the Oscar for best foreign language film but also that year’s Palme D’Or at the Cannes film festival. Fifteen years after this commercial and critical triumph, Mikhalkov unexpectedly returns to the events and characters of Burnt by the Sun to produce one of the most expensive and demented films in the history of Russian cinema.
Split into a pair of two and a half-hour films, Burnt by the Sun 2 is best described as a five-hour version of Saving Private Ryan directed by a Stalinist Michael Bay. The film opens by taking the complex web of political and personal betrayals described in the original Burnt by the Sun and reducing it down to someone attempting to drown Stalin in an enormous chocolate cake. From there, the film splits into three strands as the disgraced general (Nikita Mikhalkov) attempts to survive the Second World War while his former love rival (Oleg Menshikov) and daughter (Nadezhda Mikhalkova) run around war-torn Russian trying to either find or avoid each other. Though somewhat ineffectual when it comes to coherent plotting or sustained characterisation, this tripartite structure works brilliantly as a means of stringing together spectacular action sequences.
Mikhalkov is a director who has clearly learned quite a bit from the films of Michael Bay: Bay understands that he is in the business of pandering to his audience’s base desires and while nobody has ever gone broke by appealing to humanity’s love of watching people and things explode, Bay fills his films with racist, sexist and patriotic imagery in an effort to milk even more shameful joy from his audience’s reptilian brainstems. Sure, much the same effect could be achieved through means of careful characterisation, clever writing and thematic richness but it’s a lot quicker and easier to show the audience a flag and a half-naked woman draped over a motorcycle. Rather than augmenting his action sequences with the American flags and racist stereotypes that appeal to the male teenaged audience for American summer blockbusters, Mikhalkov envelopes his spectacular eye-candy in references to the Second World War, Orthodox Christianity and the original Burnt by the Sun. Mikhalkov has little of substance to say about any of these topics but he is only too happy to use the audience’s existing reactions as a means of lending his action sequences the illusion of depth.
This cynical attitude towards audience reaction is particularly evident once the film shifts from action to melodrama in its second half. Having been rescued from the frontlines, the old Russian war hero is re-united first with his wife and then with his daughter who both believed him to be dead. The scene in which the general surprises his wife is an absolute master class in soap operatic hokum as the tears, screams and wrenching farewells that surround the reunion have no basis in the plot of either this film or the original Burnt by the Sun. Even more ridiculous and crudely sentimental is the scene in which the general is reunited with his (now mute) daughter in the middle of a minefield. Clearly, Mikhalkov knows his way around the inside of an action sequence but he appears to have forgotten everything he once knew about drama.
Grotesquely long, crudely sensational and informed by a creepy combination of Orthodox Christianity and nostalgic Stalinism, Burnt by the Sun 2 is a film so utterly bonkers that it transcends boredom and bad taste to produce something genuinely entertaining. Silly, camp and gloriously fun, Burnt by the Sun 2 is everything that Star Trek into Darkness and Man of Steel should have been and more.