Int’l Critics Line: Todd McCarthy On Timur Bekmambetov’s ‘V2. Escape From Hell’


V2 Escape From Hell plays like an old-fashioned, vibrantly propagandistic 1950s World War II thriller about how a daredevil Russian aviator thwarted Hitler’s last-gasp attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat during the final desperate months of combat. Visually, thanks to ever-advancing CGI, this is a pretty convincing display of vintage aeronautic action that would have been very tough to recreate today using actual planes. War story and gamer aviation fanatics should eat this up.

Speaking of gamers, the makers of V2 are proudly promoting the fact that this is the first film being offered in both horizontal and vertical versions — that is, one way for the public keen to experience it the traditional way, on cinema or big TV screens, and the other for younger viewers or the merely attention-bereft who prefer watching bits of it like combat snacks on their mobile phones.

For the record, I watched it in the old-timey oblong format, which I would rather vigorously argue is the way to go since the main stars here are airplanes, one of many objects left out of Fritz Lang’s remark in Godard’s Contempt, that “CinemaScope is fine for snakes and coffins, but not for people.”

Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (co-directing here with longtime collaborator Sergey Trofimov) has enjoyed success at home and hits outside the home market with the likes of Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. But I decided life is too short after enduring his 2016 version of Ben-Hur, truly one of the most execrable and pointless films ever made; why re-make an epic like this, and force comparisons to two of the most successful films of the silent and sound eras, unless you intend to at least try to create something legitimately grand? Nor was I encouraged by Bekmambetov’s proclamation that he wanted to make a WWII film “designed for GenZ.”

So, it is an agreeable surprise that, after a bit of overdone aerial choreography in the early going, V2 gradually takes hold as a tight, tense, traditional war movie that tells a story we’ve never seen before, at least in the West. Even when tell-tale traces of digital action jump out, most nitpicking can be cast aside as the momentous nature of the drama takes hold. A fresh and exciting WWII story is still a welcome thing, and V2 has got one.

On the defensive after the Nazis’ humiliating defeat in Russia and with the U.S. building up its forces in Europe, by 1944 Hitler was forced to go for broke by speeding up his missile program. The early aerial dogfight sequences, while exciting, are still a tad gamey and show-offy, and some panoramic shots of a concentration camp give off a similar fake appearance. From here on, however, V2 appears realistic enough as the high-stakes moves commence between some nothing-to-lose Russian prisoners of war and their German guardians, who can almost smell the commies breathing down their necks from the East.

One recently downed Russian pilot has has gone over to the German side to, temporarily at least, save his neck. But when flier Mikhail Devyatayev (popular Russian actor Pavel Priluchnyy) is caught and then attempts to escape, he’s sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on an island in the Baltics, where Germany’s final hope — rocket bombs that can fly themselves — are being rushed into readiness.

As in most prisoner-of-war dramas, the urge to escape is a principal preoccupation, and there is a fair share of in-camp intrigue and detailing of the hideousness of work camp life. But the potential trump card here is that Devyatayev thinks he can steal the plane and fly it back to Russia if he and his small team can manage to stealthily get onboard and off the ground.

The film is a little short on practical information, such as how much gasoline the plane might be carrying while sitting in the hangar and how the prisoners expect to fly a German bomber with swastikas all over it into Russian territory without being shot down. But these are the chances the men have to take and the getaway is genuinely suspenseful; the heavy plane doesn’t achieve lift-off on the first attempt, while the second try looks as questionable as Lindbergh’s attempt to get his gas-loaded little one-propeller craft above the wires at the end of the runway in The Spirit of St. Louis.

This is one of those true-life yarns that beats whatever similar fictions could be invented. There were repercussions for the participants in the Soviet Union after the fact, which the film duly details, but as war stories go, stealing a bomber out from under the Nazis’ noses is hard to top.

Old-fashioned in its dramatic techniques but advanced in its technology, V2 is straight-forward story-telling in a popular vein, which is what a yarn like this warrants.

Editor’s note: Sony distributes in Russia while release outside the market is currently being discussed with various international distributors and streaming platforms. As Deadline previously reported, there are expected to be changes to the cut making the story more relevant to international audiences.

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