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'Stalingrad:' A Russian War Epic That Isn't Nearly Silly Enough

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If Russia's response to the upheaval in Ukraine comes off as a bit gauche to the rest of the world, then thankfully the impeccable timing of Stalingrad's release in American theaters will provide audiences in the States with a more palatable and crowd-pleasing dose of Russian military might. The most successful film at the Russian box office last year, Fedor Bondarchuk's World War II extravaganza plays as a paean to the bloody battle that is often considered the turning point in the European Theatre of the War.

While it is estimated that at least 1.5 million people died during the battle, Stalingrad turns most of its focus to a motley crew of five Soviet soldiers (their leader played by Pyotr Fyodorov, a handsome Russian doppelganger for Colin Farrell) barricaded inside a building that has been abandoned by all of its tenants except for a young woman (Maria Smolnikova). On the other side, a steely, vengeful Nazi officer named Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann, who ironically broke through in a 1993 German film of the same title and subject matter) is set to recapture this house he once controlled and win the heart of a beautiful Russian blonde (Yanina Studilina), even if it is against her will. Why this house is of particular strategic importance is hardly made clear, though that is of the least amount of importance in the film's proceedings.

The special effects and action sequences of Stalingrad can be dazzling and sometimes downright silly. An early battle in which Kahn destroys three large fuel tanks by remotely detonating them provides a big bang, though the real payoff comes in the form of flaming Russian soldiers charging a German line that provides Stalingrad with its most berserk and hilarious moment. Other scenes of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay are impressive in their choreography and the fluidity of the camera is a welcome antipode to the herky-jerky editing of most Hollywood blockbusters. Unfortunately Stalingrad bogs itself down with heavy-handed notions of rote rah-rah patriotism made ugly by a regressive Madonna/whore dynamic that represents the two primary female characters. What could have been a massively entertaining, campy war epic gets sidelined by failed attempts of humanism that turn to kitsch and blind ideology.

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Stalingrad opens in IMAX and IMAX 3D theaters tomorrow.