Little does the crew of a Soviet freighter transporting medicine for the Motherland expect the true nature of their cargo – opium. However, what the sailors don’t know, a bunch of evil pirates does. A shipwrecked sailor (Talgat Nigmatulin) the freighter takes on board on the open sea is in truth the pirates’ man on the inside, bound to destroy their radio when the time for attack comes. Soon enough half of the Soviets are dead, their freight is stolen, and their ship is sinking.
The survivors, led by their Captain Iwan Iljitsch (Pyotr Velyaminov) and engineer and part-time hero Sergej Sergejitsch (Nikolai Yeryomenko) manage to escape on a life boat without their enemies realizing it, but without supplies and far-off from help, their situation looks none too pleasant. That is, until they come upon an island. As luck will have it, the crew’s troubles aren’t over yet, though, for it is this very same island the pirates are using as an HQ after having enslaved a village of peaceful pearl-divers. Or rather the female population of it – for the men, the pirates just couldn’t find any use.
Fortunately, the Soviet sailors are nearly to a man – there is of course the obligatory “coward” (aka a person who reacts rather more realistically to the whole plot) and the crew’s two women are only there to get kidnapped and tortured a bit – improbably competent at the manly arts of sneaking, fighting, and being badass while disco funk plays, so they even have a chance to survive the ensuing cat and mouse game against the much better armed and more numerous pirates. In the end, though, all will depend Sergej Sergejitsch’s ability to do the lone hero bit.
Boris Durov’s Pirates Of The XXth Century was the highest grossing movie in the existence of the USSR, which again goes to show that people are the same wherever you go. So if there’s a film full of fun violence, an audience will choose it over anything generally considered more worthy every time, no matter where it comes from or what specifically is considered to be more worthy at a given place and time. I say this and make it sound as if it were a bad thing, but obviously, Pirates and films of its type are my bread and butter when it comes to movies, and I’ll watch and enjoy a film with shoot-outs and explosions over a treatise about some rich people’s marital troubles (or in this case the purity of the working classes) every time.
As an action film – a genre Soviet directors only had limited experience with - Pirates often is a bit awkward, with everyone striking the same poses you’d find in a Hollywood production or something produced in the Philippines, but doing so in a manner that can feel slightly off, as if the actors and the director weren’t totally fluent in the filmic language they were speaking. This does only strengthen the film’s charms for me by providing it with a feeling of playground innocence, not unlike that found in Turkish pop cinema, although Pirates‘ creators show quite a bit more technical proficiency. Like many action films this is a variation of kids playing cowboys and Indians, just with a greater budget for playing make-believe.
Other elements of the film are completely in keeping with the international language of action movies. There’s awkward-yet-awesome white guy martial arts (still better than Chuck Norris because these white guys at least lack the ick factor), the need for people to at least nearly fall off a cliff if a cliff is provided, the naturalness with which everyone who isn’t a woman not only knows how to use an assault rifle but is good at it too – all these pleasant clichés and more are there and always pretty fun to watch.
Pirates also offers some choice noises for our ears too thanks to a wonderfully late 70s disco funk score by Yevgeniy Gevorgyan that is clearly a brother in spirit to what I like to call Toei Funk and assorted genres of film music, with some added moments of random synthie-warbling during the diving sequences (which are pleasantly short and to the point instead of the traditional boring and long-winded).
Pirates is great fun if you don’t have to take your action movies dead seriously, but can enjoy silliness for the sake of silliness like a proper cult movie fan should. No worries, though, while the film is as silly as one could ask for, it never goes the frightening and wrong route of conscious camp that has destroyed many a movie over the years. This film’s silliness is a product of a certain naivety, not of cynicism.
It also should be noted that the film’s script (by Durov and Desyat Negrityat‘s Stanislav Govorukhin) eschews the bane of many a Soviet movie, the propagandist speeches about the superiority of the Soviet people, awesomeness of the working classes, communism, and so on, and so forth that have sucked the joy out of many a film (which I suspect to not have been the favourite parts of movies for their native Soviet movie audiences either). There are of course certain assumptions about the way people and the world work that are slightly different from what one is used to from western films (for one, there’s a larger emphasis on team play than is typical for action movies without the number seven in their title), but these are the result of people coming from a culturally slightly different place, and will only annoy people who can’t cope with others having vaguely different values or ideas than themselves.
So, all in all, Soviet Russia can be proud of having this as its highest-grossing movie.