Major Grom: Plague Doctor
Yes, yes, I will get onto Black Widow eventually, but this week I wanted to branch out a little and explore something a bit more unique in the general sub-genre of comic book adaptations/superhero stories. Major Grom: Plague Doctor, an adaptation of a Russian graphic novel series from Artyom Gabrelyanov, appeared to fit the bill quite nicely: a different setting than we are used to, a mix of the hard-boiled crime detective with more “traditional” costume-wearing supervillains and a subscription service happy to give the project an airing, even with that surprising 140 minute running time. Sure it had a tortuous road to the big screen, and eight credited writers – yikes by the way – but here it is.
I know little of Major Grom beyond the very basics – St Petersburg detective, with a tendency to run into costumed bad guys with disturbing regularity – but it wasn’t hard to get me intrigued with this. We’re in some kind of multi-generational moment with the superhero genre, 14 years after Robert Downey Jr and Marvel Studios began their efforts to upend everything, and more niche production origin points appear to be catching up in terms of ambition and cinematography ability, married to an audience that, for the time being at least, remains ravenous for every comic book going to get some form of adaptation treatment. Major Grom: Plague Doctor, is Russia’s effort to get in on the action, before the MCU does the same with whatever version of the country they put up on screen in Black Widow. Is the more authentic better, or is Major Grom more appropriately consigned to the pages of is graphic novel?
Major Igor Grom (Tikhon Zhiznevsky) is St Petersburg’s best cop: a no-nonsense loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules, but damn does he get results. And he’s badly needed by his boss Fedor (Aleksei Maklakov) when St Petersburg is beset by the “Plague Doctor”: a vigilante clad in a strange outfit with a penchant for murdering those he sees as the worst of what the corrupt city has to offer. A number of different personalities come in and out of Grom’s life as he moves forward with his investigation: social media head honcho Sergei (Sergei Goroshko), creepy federal agent Evgeny (Mikhail Evlanov), idealistic rookie cop Dubin (Aleksandr Seteykin) and the beautiful blogger/reporter Yulia (Lyubov Aksyonova): with the city in an uproar and no telling who the next victim will be, can Grom unmask the killer before it’s too late?
I actually enjoyed the hell out of this. Major Grom: Plague Doctor is at different times both rigidly attached to the expected formula and at other times working very hard to stay away from it, but it always carries with it a certain sense of detachment and, dare I say it, fun. And I don’t mean that the characters are making jokes every second line even as the planet blows up around them like some other superhero films I could name, I mean that the film displays a sense of knowing how inherently ridiculous the plot is, but makes a deal with the audience right from an opening sequence where the titular cop literally chases down a hijacked bank truck on foot: stay with us just enough to not laugh your way to the door, and you’ll get something enjoyable out of it.
The titular detective that we meet chasing down that stolen bank truck – pacing down the middle of the street, cap on, as bank notes swirl around him, a potent visual in fairness – could be parody in the hands of a different actor and a different writer, but I think works really well here. I mean, he’s essentially a less muscley McBain in many ways, but Zhiznevsky plays him with just enough restraint that he doesn’t become a cartoon, not even when he cuts loose an impressive step on the dance floor in an amazing mid-film scene. Thankfully lacking an unneeded origin story, he’s dark and brooding, but not quite a Bruce Wayne: this is a guy who enjoys his takeaway kebabs and likes betting money on whether he is going to be fired for his latest renegade action, when he isn’t struggling to form relationships with anyone. There’s something inherently likable about Grom, as played by Zhiznevsky: he has buckets of charm, and a confidence in the performance that really translates to the viewer.
In front of the good Major is a conspiracy straight out of the Christoper Nolan playbook, as the rather cool-looking Plague Doctor, armed with some nasty flamethrowers and an anarchist attitude, starts offing sociopathic billionaire’s sons, corrupt bankers and the owners of the landfill that has been poisoning people. The film adds a modern twist to affairs through the use of social media as a key plot point to all of this though, which keeps things fresh: as well as giving us Goroshko as the slightly demebted Mark Zuckerburg knock-off (or rather Jesse Eisenberg, right down to similar hair from Batman V Superman’s Lex Luthor), it also asks the most pertinent question that the film is happy to posit: how far is too far when it comes to online activism? Even just looking at Russia alone we have seen recently the power of social media to generate activism and threaten the status quo, but what happens when the kind of beaten down and frustrated generation exemplified in St Petersburg’s have-nots get an online superhero who live-streams his murder of the 1%? Major Grom: Plague Doctor doesn’t belabour this point, but it provides a nice undercurrent to the whole thing: I mean just look at the title of the film, that suggests that the nominal hero and nominal villain are on the same level.
Of course the flip side of that coin is something that is bound to raise some hackles, namely that the story depicts mass agitation and the use of social media for the same as the villains of the story, while the hero is the cop who exults in ignoring civil rights. In Russia. For the rest of the planet Major Grom: Plague Doctor can be put down as a good bit of escapist fantasy, but one wonders how will it truly resonated in Russia (not very well, hence why it’s getting its biggest audience via Netflix), a place where people may not have gravitated to the film’s message, even as influenced as it is by so many western tropes. The film perhaps is trying to distract you from this with its occasional bits of comedy, that at certain points border on something we might describe as Deadpool-like, though it never crosses the line. I suppose it’s really more like a Russian Batman, even if Grom never wears a mask (except for in one memorable sequence actually), right down to the inevitably fascistic overtones.
What unfolds is something that’s part The Dark Night Rises and part Dirty Harry, as Grom slowly garners something akin to his own Scooby gang in independent reporter/love interest Yulia and rookie cop Dubin, and goes after the Plague Doctor with the kind of righteous fury that you only ever get in film detectives. There are twists and turns, maniacal monologues, brief sojourns to swanky party’s and a surprising amount of action. A few changes here and there and this could have been a Russian Bond movie: it has the same kind of energy to it, with the machismo-filled lead, the cackling villain and a supporting cast who all do their best to stand-out in different ways. Most importantly it is entertaining as hell, with a lively pacing that means it doesn’t quite feel the near two-and-a-half hour running time.
It’s also quite impressive from a visual standpoint. I mean, this is a film with a Russian production base, so I hope I can be forgiven for being surprised at how clean and crisp everything, from the cinematography to the CGI, actually looks. In line with the Sputnik from earlier this year, it paints a good picture of where the Russian film industry is currently. St Petersburg non-literally shines as a sort of real-life Gotham City, with lots of murky alleyways, dingy boxing clubs and glittering nightclubs to go with the brutalist architecture which stands out big time during daylight scenes. Director Oleg Trofim has an eye for interior detail as well – Grom’s police precinct evokes Blade Runner in how it combines openness with cramped desks, Sergei’s office is a mix of imposingly Gothic with cooky modernity and even Grom’s apartment looks like it has been crafted with Dark Knight-ish care and attention for just a small number of scenes. There’s a few other inventive moments, like a montage of investigation that intersects with Dubin’s hobby of doodling on-screen.
And the film gets action too. There’s nothing very fancy about the kind of stuff that we see, but it is effective at the thrills. Zhiznevsky carries the leading man energy thus far and beyond, and I loved the twist in many action scenes that sees Grom imaging how things can go wrong before committing to an action (reminded me of Premium Rush in that way: at one point Grom parses things out and ends up inside a coffin at his own memorial service). That’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t see a lot of in this genre, and it makes the film stand-out. And I did appreciate the titular villain’s involvement too: this strange looking dark avenger with flamethrowers coming out of his arms, that seems to tailor made to excite a certain generation online. I suppose what I want to get at from the visual front is that Major Grom: Plague Doctor really does knock things out of the park, in a manner that I honestly did not expect, given the background of the whole thing: there’s been an appreciable degree of effort put in that really does make the production worthy of the budget it has and the status that it is going for.
I really liked this one. We’re long since past the saturation point of superheros and comic book characters making the leap to live action media, with only COVID-19 a big enough foe to stop the onslaught for a time. Because of that, it is good to get things like this from time-to-time, to remind us that it isn’t all orange and teal, hero poses, copious amounts of CGI and quips every four-and-a-half seconds. Major Grom: Plague Doctor has come out of the other side of a very troubled and lengthy production with something worth seeing. It looks good, is written well (with good translation on the subtitles, done well enough that I only remembered to note it now), has a great cast and deals a decent story, that makes the best use of its time and treads the line between entertaining and insightful. Moreover, in a genre that lives and dies on its ability to generate interest in more movies, it’s a film that makes me want to see more from this cast and crew, with these characters. I hope that enough people tune into the thing to make that possible, You should be one of them. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).