Billed as the first Russian 'disaster' film, writer/director Alexander Mitta's spin on the "Airport" scenario follows the standard path of romance, deception and mortal danger on land and in the air, although fans of disaster formulas will find this more meditative variation a welcome change. Not starring George Kennedy or Karen Black, and devoid of singing nuns, wealthy industrialists and terrorist conspiracies, "Air Crew" spends the first hour setting up the characters and their unglamorous lives - a stoic, aging pilot, whose daughter is expecting a child; a cocky co-pilot whose womanizing is ultimately tamed; a skilled airman trapped in a loveless marriage and humdrum job - and kicks into gear when the interconnected crew become saviors of a doomed town, only to find more trauma in the air. The differences between the American disaster archetypes - the Selfish One Who Redeems Himself, the Evil Wife Who Acknowledges Her Wrongs, the Blissful Lovers - are fascinating because "Air Crew" was designed as big budget escapism with differing cultural sensibilities, and not Soviet propaganda (though concepts of individual and group sacrifices, without complaint and hesitation, are part of the fabric).
Ruscico - an acronym for the Russian Cinema Council - has been releasing a wide variety of genre films, rarely shown outside of their former Soviet borders, and cineastes should find these works a welcome treat from the more traditional Hollywood fare.
The DVD is a bit of a mixed blessing - superbly produced, but flawed in key aspects. The print is very sharp and boasts a rich combination of colours, showcasing the diverse locations, décor, and unique lighting schemes for specific sets. The colours are carryovers from the seventies: the use of deep blues, saturated reds, and shades of amber and orange dominate many sequences, most notably the plane interior and fiery sequences in the disintegrating town. The flame effects possess a demonic quality, articulating numerous orange swirls that creep ever-closer to the doomed inhabitants. Some of the explosions, however, have rather 'hot' video levels that occasionally reach a white-yellow brightness.
Though listed as a 16x9 transfer on the website, the print is full frame (as printed on the attractive box art), and appears to be a panned & scanned version. A few shots come off awkward in the 1.33:1 ratio, and there's a few moments where a head is cropped as a character sits down or moves about; some technical specs in the foldout booklet regarding the film's original theatrical ratio and colour process would have cleared things up. There are occasional signs of artifacting - such as the dim main titles and airport shots, and a character's face components 'floating' during a hand-held shot - but the overall transfer and colours are very nice.
A 5.1 remix emphasizes plane engines and fly-bys, and the clean sound elements show off the foley and sound effects during the fiery earthquake sequence, with some panning effects in the front and rear surrounds. Dialogue is very clean, although it occasionally suffers from echo and drainpiping due to over-processing of the new digital mix. The music cues (including some dated and bizarre pop tracks) are quite crisp, and their dynamic levels are in sync with Mitta's frequent use of jump cuts - a no-nonsense approach that keeps the story moving through several seasons. Though well-paced overall, the film's running time is not 144 minutes as stated on the box - something that adds to the confusion: Was it shot in a widescreen format? Was it ever in mono? And what is the correct running time?
To offset these flaws, Ruscico's disc includes Russian and English 5.1 tracks, along with a French equivalent where a few of the main credits are real aloud, plus a curious Spanish narration option which runs over the Russian track. The all-region NTSC and available PAL discs includes a huge selection of subtitle options, ensuring the release can be enjoyed by anyone around the world.
The extras are a curious mix of archival and promotional, starting with an 8-minute fragment of Alfred Shnitke's "Symphony No. 4," rather than selections from his original soundtrack. There's also text menus containing basic statistics and cast/crew info for 3 upcoming Ruscico titles - "Agony," "The Forty First," and "Tchaikovsky" - composer Dimitri Tiomkin's epic production from 1969.
The disc includes a large cast and crew filmography for the film's director, numerous writers, cinematographer, and large cast, but some biographical capsules would have given us a better idea of these people, and their contributions to Russian film. A production still gallery and snapshot of the film's blazing poster are also included.
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan