Pirates of the 20th Century (1980)

Rating: D

Dir: Boris Durov
Star: Nikolay Eryomenko, Pyotr Velyaminov, Talgat Nigmatulin, Rein Aren

This action film was a game-changer for Soviet cinema, being intended almost entirely as entertainment, rather than providing some kind of moral lesson to the proletariat. The proletariat responded enthusiastically. It became the highest-grossing local movie in the entire history of the pre-breakup Soviet Union, selling a record 87.6 million tickets in its initial run, more or less one-third of the entire population at the time. It’s the equivalent of a US film at the time grossing about $200 million (75 million tickets at an average price in 1980 of $2.70), so it was basically the same as The Empire Strikes Back. In 1980, that was the only movie to take more than $105 million at the box-office.

However, 40+ years later, Empire is still warmly regarded and still very watchable. I’m here to tell you that, whatever it may have seemed like to Soviet audience in its day, to this contemporary viewer, Pirates is quite dreadful, and almost painfully dull. Now, to be fair, 1980 was not exactly great for Hollywood action either. We hadn’t reached the reinvention of the genre which would happen later in the decade, probably starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1982. If you look at the most successful Hollywood action movies of 1980, they’re a weak bunch. The top five include the likes of Any Which Way You Can, Smokey and the Bandit II and Popeye. However, even by that low standard, Pirates of the 20th Century feels about twenty years past its sell-by date.

It’s the story of a Soviet ship, the Nezhin, under Captain Ivan Ilyich (Velyaminov) and Chief Engineer Sergey Sergeyevich (Eryomenko), who are transporting much needed medical opium – an element met with some resistance by the local censors. Their vessel is hijacked by pirates under the control of their captain (Aren), with the cargo looted, and the crew left on the ship after it has been scuttled. Escaping that, they drift around for a bit in the lifeboat, before eventually making their way on a lifeboat to a nearby island. There – hey, what are the odds! – the pirates have also holed up, and are terrorising the native population. With the help of a local bit of NativeTotty, Ivan and Sergey prepare to hijack the hijackers, and recover the cargo which was stolen from them.

After a somewhat interesting start, this films sinks pretty much when the Nezhin does. You can tell that nobody involved with this has any idea of how to make an action movie, or even how to shoot an action sequence. There’s almost no sense of energy, with our heroes proceeding as if they were organizing a productivity drive at the local tractor factory. Outside of Nigmatulin, who plays the first pirate to board their target, hardly anyone knows how to throw a punch, and Durov lacks the skills to fake it. Aren makes for a bland, forgettable villain, matching the bland, forgettable heroes, and I can only conclude the Soviet audience must have been very starved for anything approximating entertainment. No wonder the USSR fell apart.