Set in mid-1990s Russia, Pu-239 begins with an especially gloomy premise for an HBO-premiere movie: Timofey Berezin (Paddy Considine), a devoted family man receives a fatal dose of radiation during a workplace accident at a decrypt Soviet-era nuclear facility. Denied compensation by his employer, and with only days to live, Berezin steals weapons-grade plutonium from the plant and heads off to Moscow in hopes of selling it on the black market to provide for his wife (Radha Mitchell) and son after his imminent death.
In Moscow, Berezin meets Shiv (Oscar Issac), a petty gangster who's in trouble with his employer for bungling a caper. Shiv must come up with $6000 restitution in 24 hours or risk being killed. Here begins an unlikely buddy flick destined to end badly. The only question is how badly, and for whom.
Berezin and Shiv's plan raises both mechanistic and philosophical questions. Some of the most obvious mechanistic questions are these: Can Shiv find a buyer for the plutonium before Berezin dies of radiation poisoning and Shiv is murdered? Will the buyer honor the terms of a sale made with this duo? If so, will Berezin be able to get the money to his wife before he dies? The underlying philosophic question is, do we, the viewers, even want this unlikely duo to succeed? If they don't, Berezin's family will be destitute and Shiv will be killed, but if they do, weapons-grade plutonium will be in loosed into the black market.
Pu-239 presents a familiar caricature of mid '90s Russia. Newly-emergent hierarchical criminal organizations populated by street thugs, body guards, and beautiful prostitutes funneling vast pools of wealth upward to fund luxurious cars, clubs and mansions, set against a landscape of crumbling physical and social infrastructure, the legacy of the failed Soviet system.
Pu-239 also presents another side of Russian sensibilities that is less familiar to westerners: a deep love of absurdest black comedy. Where Berezin and his story are gloomily serious, Shiv and his story are darkly funny. From the incident that gets Shiv on the hook to his boss, to his ruthless but idiotic associates, to his predicament with his wife, to his flamboyant dress and grossly inaccurate knowledge of American pop culture, Shiv's life is a joke, but a grimly black one. The intermeshing of the mordantly serious story of Berezin with the blackly comic story of Shiv may be disconcerting for some viewers, but most should find it sufficiently fresh and interesting.
American viewers accustomed to the standard Hollywood convention that requires that all dialogue in an American-financed film be in English will have no trouble accepting that everybody in Pu-239 is speaking English with some approximation of a Russian accent. To viewers familiar with Russian or another Slavic language, or simply accustomed to films set in foreign lands to actually be in the appropriate foreign language, this choice may not go over as well.
Pu-239 is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is enhanced for widescreen. Though the film's color palette is generally muted, blacks and reds are especially richly rendered. Removable subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish. The subtitles are appropriately sized, paced, and placed.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio sounds good with good separation and no noticeable dropouts or distortion. This disc also provides a 2.0 Spanish dub.
The only extra on this release other than forced trailers for other HBO films is a commentary track with writer/director Scott Z. Burns and executive producer Peter Berg. Burns comes off as affable, but slightly embarrassed about shortcomings in the film and about Berg's behavior during the commentary. Berg, on the other hand, comes across as playing some kind of odd, loathsome Hollywood caricature. He presents himself as boorish, uninformed, bored, mildly misogynistic and perhaps even a bit racist, and goes out of his way to derail the commentary at every turn. I've never found another commentary participant so unremittingly dislikable as Berg is here.
Pu-239 is a small black-comedy that plays on the first-world fear of loose nukes while challenging viewers to examine where their sympathies lie. For viewers that don't mind the use of the Hollywood convention of having everybody in Russia speak thickly accented English, the film's momentum should be sufficient to sustain its 98-minute run time.