Vorobey (Aleksei Chadov) tearfully bids goodbye to his girlfriend in the pouring rain, because today he has been drafted into the Soviet army and will be shipped out to Afghanistan after weeks of training. One other recruit seems determined to start a fight, goading him with conversation about how his girlfriend won't waste any time in getting to know other men, but Vorobey won't be provoked. Once they enter the camp, the first thing to happen is that their heads are shaved, and one soon-to-be soldier takes offence at the attitude of the army barbers: after his hair is shorn, he attacks the man who did it and shaves off a clump to see how he likes it. These cocky recruits would have been severely reprimanded had they not been going out to the Afghan war, but as they are, they're going to suffer enough...
There were a rash of Vietnam War films out of Hollywood in the late seventies and eighties as the United States of America grappled with that years long conflict, and actor-producer-director Fyodor Bondarchuk's 9th Company (originally called 9 Rota) appeared to be very much in the spirit of that struggle. Was Afghanistan the Soviet Union's Vietnam? That's what this film believes, and all the conventions of the Hollywood counterparts are present and correct here, including a first-half training drama straight out of Full Metal Jacket. Taking this approach certainly struck a chord with Russia as the production went on to become that country's biggest financial success since the fall of Communism.
We are introduced to our main characters in an ensemble cast of young actors who each make their mark while still making their camaraderie and function as a steadily formed unit convincing. They miss female companionship and look forward to the day that the camp's resident available young woman, a daughter of one of the officers, makes men of them but until then there's a lot of shooting on ranges, being shouted at by their warrant officer in time honoured R. Lee Ermey manner, and scrambling up a steep hill wearing packs filled with rocks, a metaphor for their struggle to succeed as a useful whole. Nevertherless, their personalities are clearly defined, with artist Gioconda (Konstantin Kryukov) standing out as the thinker amongst them.
After about an hour of training montages and manly company and morale-boosting exercises, our troops are sent over the border to Afghanistan, naturally finding that all the training in the world won't prepare them for the nightmare situation they have to endure. They get a hint that this is no holiday when the plane that escorted them to their new base is shot at by missiles and crashes at the airport, killing all on board. There is a try at letting us know what the locals felt about this invasion, but too often they're the faceless enemy. However, the film's best scene is not an action sequence, but the lecture by the commanding officer who tells the recruits what kind of culture they should expect and reminds them that nobody has ever conquered Afghanistan. 9th Company is very well made, but cannot escape the clichés of the war film - maybe nobody can by this point, and it's only the film's setting that makes it stand out from the crowd. That said, it is absorbing and will definitely satisfy war movie addicts. Music by Dato Evgenidze.
[Contender's two disc Region 2 DVD has documentaries and trailers as extras.]