The 400-Word Review: Red Penguins
By Sean Collier
August 7, 2020

Red Penguins

Some documentaries are meant to expose or explain a difficult truth. Others seek to give the viewer a better understanding of an important figure or moment.

Plenty of other docs are built around a simple “can you believe this happened?”

“Red Penguins” belongs in the latter category. In 1993, a group of American investors including owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins (and, inexplicably, Michael J. Fox) bought a controlling interest in a struggling, Moscow-based hockey team. Despite the team’s close ties to the Russian army, its American investors attempted to run it as a normal venture of unfettered Western capitalism.

The results ... were mixed.

This is familiar territory for director Gabe Polsky, who is of Russian descent. His similarly titled 2014 documentary, “Red Army,” also looked at the relationship between ice hockey and politics in post-Soviet Russia — this time through the experience of the country’s formidable national team.

There’s a sharp difference, however, between the efforts of Russia’s internationally dominant sports heroes and that of the team that became the Russian Penguins. The latter team, despite having once been an official arm of the Soviet military, was by 1993 in shambles; there were squatters living in the luxury boxes of the team’s dilapidated arena.

Polsky depicts the initial, unlikely success of the squad; when the addition of a scrap of NHL-style shine failed to draw the crowds, they turned to more unconventional attractions. These included performing bears, free beer and, with no hint of irony, on-ice exotic dancers.

It wasn’t as much of a stretch as you’d think; there was an unlicensed strip club in the basement of the arena.

There is some legitimate insight into the chaos of post-Soviet Russia in “Red Penguins,” particularly as the cultures clash over money. The Americans can’t understand why graft, corruption and even deadly violence are shrugged off; the Russians can’t grasp why the Americans are more interested in potential money later than lining their pockets now. The lesson, such as it is, is that the words democracy and capitalism have very different definitions depending on which flag is flying.

Mostly, though, “Red Penguins” is a comedy of errors — an ambitious and often ridiculous plan unraveling for blindingly obvious reasons. Along the way, you’ll find dozens of stunning moments — and for each, you won’t believe that they really happened.

Just wait until the part where Disney gets involved. It’s a hoot.

My Rating: 7/10

“Red Penguins” is available via digital on-demand services.