Unkillable Russian soldiers. Magical Nazi tanks. Sounds like the makings of a raucous, if not quite well-made, war movie from the 70’s. Or maybe a modern day lovechild of Timur Bekmambetov and Matthew Vaughn, highly tongue-in-cheek, highly ludicrous, a winking ode to raucous, not quite well-made war movies from the 70’s should there prove not to be one already about unkillable Russians and magical tanks. What it probably wouldn’t make you think of is aloof modern day awards bait, and yet, before you whip out your pen and start writing your own supernatural take on Ivan vs. Jerry, look to Karen Shakhnazarov’s White Tiger, which takes the very same idea as its premise, pitting an immortal tank commander against a ghostly Tiger tank that’s ripping up the Russian lines, but which all captive Germans insist is not their own. In place of outlandish action and melodrama, Shakhnazarov opts for a leaden pace and garbled subtext, taking a high-minded approach to a story that begs for politically incorrect impishness.
It establishes itself as a clearly drawn fable from the off with the folk origin of its hero, an anonymous tank commander burnt to a crisp still gripping the controls of his tank whose eyes shine bright when he’s found by his infantry in the aftermath of battle. Dubbed Ivan Naydenov, or literally “Ivan Found,” he goes through a miraculous recovery before claiming to have a spiritual connection with tanks, and that the mysterious tank they call White Tiger is a ghost of war that has it out for him. Without any other options, his superiors do what they would do with anyone clearly suffering from signs of mental disorder: put him in a tank and send him into battle.
Aleksey Vertkov is ideal to play Ivan, bringing a slight, soft-spoken peculiarity to Ivan’s impenetrable new belief system. He doesn’t, however, make an ideal leading man, nor should he be expected to. Ivan is revealed to be little more than a device, having no identity beyond his eternal enmity with White Tiger. He’s ostensibly the human center of the movie, but his rebirth has left him as emotionless as the burnt out husk of a T-34. He drones his battle plans and mumbles his mistakes with a passive gaze directed to the forest. Most of his dialogue is directed at Vitaly Kischenko’s Major Fedotov, Ivan’s superior officer and the man first tasked with destroying White Tiger. Fedotov should be the real emotional epicenter, but Kischenko struggles to bring life to the story, being relegated to the sidelines in an overly simplistic game of cat-and-mouse between a near-comatose man and a lumbering hunk of metal.
A general feeling of apathy pervades everything, from the way the Russian military hierarchy chooses to believe Ivan with nary an argument to the way Ivan and his small crew look down the barrel of White Tiger’s cannon with barely a harrumph of dismay. Were this an American movie, there would’ve been a skeptical old general bellowing out opposition every second of the way. Say what you will of Russian military leadership; they at least have a healthy appreciation for the surreal. Their cool acceptance of the seemingly insane notwithstanding, Shakhnazarov should have able to round up some better footage for his action scenes, but all he manages are lifeless dioramas lacking in kinetic energy. His camera is miserably static, depressurizing what should be tense standoffs into melancholy still-lifes. White Tiger does make a memorable entrance, albeit for only fifteen seconds or so, when it silently passes alongside an oblivious Fedotov stationed at the forest edge, but after that, Shakhnazarov is unable to sustain any sense of mystery about it. As serious as the script wants to be, Shakhnazarov apparently found very little to fire his imagination in regard to the actual war aspect of the story.
Bizarrely, the final stretch of the movie abandons Ivan and White Tiger altogether, taking a detour into the German surrender for a ham-fisted commentary on the nature of man and the inevitability of war. Shakhnazarov and fellow screenwriter Aleksandr Borodyanksiy squander an immensely flavorful concept, one originated in Ilya Boyashov’s novel, to loudly declare what most other ambitious war movies take for granted. They win points for sincerity, but lose just as many for solemnity. One can only hope that in a few years, when the memory of this White Tiger has faded, a new one with a more interested director will emerge from the fog, ready to unleash something much more hellish upon us.