What is the Russian for Full Metal Jacket? Could it be 9th Company?

The wars are different, but the emotions of the young conscripts are the same. Testosterone is flying, insubordination rife. Once training starts and their heads have been shaved, the equivalent of R Lee Ermey, a scarred veteran of previous campaigns, sets about destroying the recruits’ individuality and molding them into a fighting unit.

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Recently, bullying in the Russian army has been in the headlines, as well as stories of grim conditions and severe hardship. There are hints of that here, but only fleeting. The year is 1988. Soviet forces have been in Afghanistan since 1979. Like the Americans in Vietnam and now Iraq, they are leaching lives without winning hearts and minds. A retreat is inevitable, but not yet.

War films, if they are honest, as this one is, expose the futility and random horror of what is done in the name of honour and so become, by their very nature, anti-war. 9th Company, like Full Metal Jacket before it, stays out of politics, away from sentimentality and into the line of fire. It is about heroism, however that is defined, and humanity. It is also about transforming “pregnant cockroaches” into soldiers.

As a two-parter, the film has separate objectives and debut director Fyodor Bondarchuk succeeds in both. The training section brings the audience closer to the main protagonists as they suffer a transformation into killing machines, which crucially doesn’t happen because they remain, despite going through the mill, defined individuals and, wherever possible, naughty boys.

Once they find themselves in Afghanistan (Crimea and Uzbekistan), they split into two groups, joining hardened warriors in what will become a clearing exercise for retreating transport columns in the desolate mountain region, close to the Pakistan border, where spasmodic guerrilla fighting with what look like local herdsmen takes place and for the raw recruits is nothing less than a baptism of fire.

Visually, 9th Company is epic, while remaining emotionally connected to the original intake, although never, as in Saving Private Ryan, allowing sweet memories of home to soften the reality of violent death in the isolation of what, for them, must be an inexplicable conflict.

The acting has an energy and conviction that demands respect. Based on true events, 9th Company has been nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2007 Academy Awards, cost $9million to make and is the highest grossing post-Communist film ever.

Reviewed on: 15 Feb 2007
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Raw Russian recruits join an elite brigade in the mountains of Afghanistan.
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