The direction creates drama in 9th Company, the camera panning back to consistently show the Russian soldiers as a group, together. Each is given individuality via close-ups, but the importance lies with those wide shots, showing what will become the 9th Company once into Afghanistan.
It matters for the final stand, the soldiers taking on an onslaught of Afghani fighters with no radio contact and limited weaponry. Those wide angle views of the crew become smaller and tighter, fewer soldiers available to fill that same space. When the battle ends, only one stands alone on Hill 3234, and it was all for nothing.
9th Company is based on a true story, set in the late 1980’s at the tail end of Communist Russia and their invasion of the country. It is a true war film, peppered with extensive action scenes late, but more of a film about the loss, emotional breakdowns, and tensions generated from a conflict.
The film is careful, not creating characters who are overly friends, but slightly on edge. They fight amongst themselves over petty things, frustrated by their treatment of an off-kilter drill sergeant who continually pushes them beyond their fatigue.
Call it slow if you will (an additional editor wouldn’t have hurt), yet 9th Company does utilize its time well. Certain subplots seem to have no real purpose, one concerning a bent machine gun that is introduced, used once, and never heard from again. The rest strengthens characters, giving them personalities, aiding the dramatic once into the conflict.
The scale of the action scenes, from the multitude of tanks, helicopters, and foot soldiers, is impressive. Blood flows freely as do the explosions, the soldiers cut off from all communication as their adversaries push ever closer. Director Fydor Bondarchuk has no fears of zooming out as explosives are detonated, filling the screen with stray debris and immensely powerful images that accentuate the size of the battle, and that lonely hill in the midst of the Afghan mountains.
Well Go USA brings this 2005 Russian effort to Blu-ray with an AVC encode, and there are some severe problems on display. Aliasing is as terrible as anything you can imagine, starting small with angular bends on uniforms and helmets, along with brief shots of helicopters (the first at 8:12). Once into the fray of the deserts, weapons become a nightmare, tank armor becomes a blocky mess, and the rocky battlefields littered with unclean lines.
Even in close-ups fine lines tend to break up. Necklines are a constant struggle, and the striped blue undershirts given to the soldiers one of the worst offenders. It’s not a problem that is solved with time, but actually gets worse as the movie moves into more complex scenarios visually.
At a distance, faces look slightly waxy and smooth, a bit compressed too. The encode adequately resolves the grain structure, yet struggles with mid-range shots of the actors. Flesh tones tend to carry a pinkish hue, the colder blues of the training scenes swapped out with the warmer desert assault, here the flesh tones taking on a reddish hue. Explosions carry the appropriate level of bright yellows and oranges, sticking out amongst the intentionally flat palette used throughout.
There is little doubt the transfer can resolve some simply stunning facial detail. Rarely will you find a movie where people sweat more than this, those beads of perspiration truly stunning. Pores, fine facial hairs, textures on clothing, or anything else near the camera looks simply spectacular. The number of reference quality close-ups are too many to count, nearly all of them producing staggering high fidelity detail.
Black levels are consistently deep, rich, and bold, although shadow detail does suffer. Black crush is an additional problem, at times by design with extreme lighting set ups, and other times what seems to be a fault of the transfer.
Audio comes in two flavors, both of them unfortunately compressed. An English 5.1 mix carries an awful dub, while the Russian 2.0 is not only more natural, it doesn’t feels as elevated or as forced.
While the dub may seem to offer wider stereo channels, it’s a bit overcooked. Pans are not as clean, just exaggerated for effect to make up for the louder, obviously unnatural sounding dialogue. The surrounds are merely adequate, the effect of helicopters buzzing around and gunfire passing through not worth the dip in quality elsewhere. Bass is practically non-existent.
That’s not to say the original language track is perfect. The compression wreaks havoc on the score, which should be powerful yet is so flat and subdued as to be lost. Gunfire lacks a crispness, the highs not allowed to really breathe or reach its potential. The front soundstage is also fairly small, any pans side to side minimal. On the positive end, dialogue is far more natural and robust, carrying a natural echo through all scenes.
The first disc houses only the main film and some trailers. A second disc in this Collector’s Edition (a single disc is also being released) is a DVD, housing a 39-minute making-of, and a 30-minute retrospective on the conflict, complete with interviews from the veterans. Some footage and interviews from the Russian premiere are also included.