Russian Roulette

Director: Lou Lombardo
George Segal, Cristina Raines, Bo Brundin

Currently, Canadian films only take 2% of the annual box office take in Canada. It's been at that level for ages, and that annoys a lot of people in the industry. These people have various ideas as to what could be done to improve things. Actually, I know three specific things people in the Canadian film industry could do in order to make Canadian films popular not only with Canadians, but with people all over the world. The first thing comes in when it comes to the making of Canadian films. Having observed the world film industry for years, I have noticed one big thing that's shared by every local film industry. That big thing is that audiences will go to see movies when movies have things in them that appeal to a mass audience. Shocking fact, isn't it? Well, it seemingly would be to many Canadian filmmakers that continuously make movies with little to no commercial appeal. Anyway, once a commercial movie gets made, there is something else one can do to increase the odds that people will see the movie. And that is to advertise the movie. No one will see a movie they haven't heard anything about. Shocking fact, isn't it? Well, it seemingly would be to Canadian distributors, who continuously spend little to nothing on the marketing of Canadian movies. There is a third thing that can be done to increase the odds that many people will see a movie. And that is to widely distribute the movie to theaters. The wider the release, the more potential there is to grab a mass audience. Shocking fact, isn't it? Well, it seemingly would be to Canadian distributors, who continuously give Canadian films little to no theatrical release.

To me, those three solutions are common sense solutions. But apparently most people in the Canadian film industry don't have common sense, since I've seldom heard those in the industry propose those solutions. Instead, they propose or do various other schemes to try and improve things. I would like to talk about one scheme a number of Canadian filmmakers have done over the decades in order to try and attract audiences to their films. It's something that I call "The Big Disguise". In short, the Canadian filmmakers either set the story of their movies either in a foreign country (usually the United States), or they set their movies in some vague North American location that doesn't have anything that suggests if the movie is actually taking place in Canada or the United States. A domestic industry that disguises the location of its movies is nothing new - take Italy's spaghetti westerns, for example - but Canada has run riot with this idea. The vast majority of Canadian films that have been made over the decades have been set in foreign locations or a vague North American location. Why is this? Well, it may be that Canada seems boring next to its eccentric neighbor America to Canadian filmmakers. It may also be that because so many bad Canadian films have been made, enough to turn the Canadian public off from Canadian films, filmmakers may think that something recognizable as Canadian won't attract an audience. A third reason may also come from Canadians trying to sell their movies to the United States. The United States public has for quite some time now been quite resistant to recognizably foreign films, something American distributors know too well. Since the American market is a crucial one to get in order to get their money back, Canadian filmmakers may be disguising their movies to increase the chance of a sale to the United States.

Has this disguising worked? The results seem mixed upon investigation. On one hand, as I said at the top of this review, Canadian films still only take 2% of the Canadian box office every year. On the other hand, compare the French Canadian film industry to the English Canadian film Russian Rouletteindustry. French Canadian films are usually set in Canada and usually do well in French Canada, but they have very poor foreign sales; even France has little appetite for French Canadian films. But while English Canadian films usually do dismal business in Canada, these mostly disguised movies rack up far more foreign sales than French Canadian films. Anyway, by now you are probably thinking that the movie I'm reviewing here - Russian Roulette - is an example of a disguised Canadian film. Actually, it isn't - it's one of the rare examples of a Canadian film that's actually set in Canada. And it actually got picked up by a fairly major American distributor and was given an extensive release there. So obviously it is possible for a distinctly Canadian movie to have something about it that will appeal to a mass audience. These facts got me curious enough to track down a copy of the movie. The setting of this Canadian film is the city of Vancouver in the province of British Columbia. George Segal (All's Fair) plays Tim Shaver, an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Shaver is an unsteady police officer; we learn that recently he belted his superior officer, and he's currently under suspension. So understandably, with the preparations the police department and the Canadian spy agency are making for a visit to the city by Soviet premier Kosygin, he is not included with the security detail. Instead, Shaver is promised reinstatement if he agrees to do what seems to be a minor assignment. In the city, there is a vocal anti-Communist named Rudolf Heke (Val Avery, The Traveling Executioner), a former resident of the Soviet Union who suffered under the rule of the Soviets before coming to North America. Shaver is informed that Heke could make an embarrassing scene, so he's told to essentially kidnap Heke for the duration of Kosygin's visit. Shaver agrees to do the assignment, but when he arrives at Heke's apartment, he discovers Heke has already been abducted by people unknown. Shaver realizes something big is brewing, and starts his own investigation with help from his policewoman girlfriend Bogna (Raines, Hex)... but neither one knows at this point what the conspiracy is, and just how big it extends.

If you are familiar with actor George Segal, you probably first think of the comedies he's appeared in during his career whenever his name comes up, maybe also some of the dead serious dramas he's appeared in. You probably don't associate him with action/suspense movies. Actually, he's appeared in some during his career (like the underrated Dolph Lundgren vehicle Army Of One), but Russian Roulette is one of the few of these few where he played the lead. So how does he do in this atypical role? Actually, he comes across pretty good. The filmmakers made the right decision to not make Segal some type of gung-ho figure who dishes out violence on a regular basis. Indeed, in the few scenes where his character is involved in action, we see him struggle; he's no superman. But Segal's character does have a strength to compensate for his lack of fighting skills - he's very smart. He sees ahead of time traps meant to stop him, and he is able to take every piece of evidence he comes across and use it to make the next step in his investigation. And at no times does he brag about his skills or make others feel stupid - he comes across as a likable and fully dedicated police officer that will quickly win you over despite not being a one-man war machine. In fact, he depends on the help of several people during his investigation, and many of these people are also written in ways that are atypical and not clichéd. Take the character of Bogna, Shaver's policewoman girlfriend. Though she does get frustrated at times with Shaver's behavior (he misses a lunch date, for instance), it doesn't take long for her to be convinced that Shaver is on to something. And while she does bend a few rules to help Shaver along the way, she is for the most part a professional. When she discovers a dead body in her apartment's bathroom, for instance, she does not scream or get overly upset.

One thing about Russian Roulette that I was most looking forward to was seeing Vancouver, a city I live just a few hours from. Vancouver has played so many other places in movies, from Seattle to the Bronx, but seldom has it played itself. And usually when it has, it's been a Canadian production that's not a real movie. As you can probably imagine, I was happy to see that this particular real Canadian movie made no effort to hide its setting. The movie goes all over Vancouver and the surrounding area; we get to see Stanley Park, Grouse Mountain, Gastown, Chinatown, Vancouver International Airport, and Hotel Vancouver. And along the way, there are references to many more places like Granville Street and the West End. There is absolutely no doubt that the events of the movie are taking place in Vancouver, and that the principle characters are Canadian. I also appreciated that the movie, while clearly taking place in the winter (we see Christmas decorations), actually shows almost no snow; this is accurate for Vancouver, and will show many foreign viewers that some parts of Canada are not always a winter wonderland. Still, there was one thing about the movie's Canadian setting that bothered me. It's not really what the movie does, but instead what it doesn't do. It's that the movie's story really doesn't take the atypical Canadian setting and characters and doing something really fresh with it. If the filmmakers had at the last minute decided to set the movie in the United States, it would have been pretty easy to drop the Canadian references and film the locations in a manner that hides anything Canadian. There's almost nothing in the script that would demand that the movie be set in Canada with Canadian characters, and even that could have been rewritten with barely a sweat.

Actually, I can kind of understand why the makers of Russian Roulette didn't include that many elements that may have come across as puzzling to audiences outside of Canada; it may have made the movie harder to sell to foreign distributors, and a considerable amount of money was on the line. But I will say that while I would have liked some distinctly Canadian plot twists and themes to the movie, I did enjoy the movie all the same. One of the reasons was that this is one thriller that makes sense right to the end. The conspiracy reveals itself piece by piece, and in a manner that while keeping some things secret until near the end, doesn't confuse us on details like who is who. I will admit that the scheme when it's revealed does come across as a somewhat outlandish plan. But up until that point in the movie, director Lou Lombardo (P.K. And The Kid) has managed to weave a compelling spell. The movie until the last twenty minutes is surprisingly calm for the most part. While that may not sound exciting, the fact that the characters are taking things very seriously and not coming across as stupid or boring really got me interested. And during those last twenty minutes, when the action does start to come, the movie becomes tense and genuinely exciting. The movie had won me over with its lead character, so seeing him struggle to save the day had me riveted to my seat while the expertly directed action played in front of me. Russian Roulette doesn't seem to have been a success at the box office; if it had, maybe it might have inspired other Canadian filmmakers to make distinctly Canadian movies that also happened to be real movies. It's a movie ripe for rediscovery, so give Russian Roulette a spin in your DVD player.

(Posted August 23, 2018)

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See also: City On Fire, Crossover, Strange Shadows