Toronto Film Review: ‘Red Penguins’

Variety | 9/19/2019 | Dennis Harvey
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“Red Penguins” is a cautionary tale with particular resonance in the context of our current bizarre intertwining with Russia, the country that interfered in the last U.S. presidential election and is led by the POTUS’ apparent BFF. This wild tale of attempted transnational commerce just after the demise of the USSR in the 1990s chronicles the short-lived ownership of the East’s greatest hockey team by an American consortium.

It was an intriguing idea that fast vanished down a rabbit’s hole of deeply embedded corruption — and judging from the oil-and-water incompatibility of surviving participants decades later, one doubts any such venture attempted today would turn out much differently. Gabe Polsky’s very entertaining feature is a sports documentary with little game footage, or even interviews with players. Nonetheless, “Red Penguins” has the kind of stranger-than-fiction appeal that could lure both hockey fans and the puckless.

Emigre - Polsky - Doc - Red - Army

Emigre Polsky made a prior doc (“Red Army”) about the Soviet hockey team in its heyday. But we meet them here after the end of Communist rule had removed all government support. That left the frequent world champions in disarray, with stars increasingly cherry-picked by foreign scouts.

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Toronto - Film - Review - Penguins

Toronto Film Review: 'Red Penguins'

Seeing this as a tragedy, some deep-pocketed American enthusiasts (including movie star Michael J. Fox) invested in a surprising venture: co-owning the former Red Army outfit with its native institutional minders, making the squad a sort of brother team to the Pittsburgh Penguins. They became, overnight, the Russian Penguins — replete with new cartoon logo, a mascot (portrayed on ice by eccentric artist Alexander Von Bush), and an extremely Noo Yawk on-site marketing guy named Steven Warshaw. The latter (who now works for Madison Square Garden) is our main protagonist, and he’s a hoot.

Warshaw - Task - Team - Brand

It was Warshaw’s task to reenergize the team’s brand, or...
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