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The Ice Runner

The Ice Runner
Image Entertainment
1993 / Color / 1:85 flat letterbox / 111 min. / Street Date January 14, 2003 / $19.99
Starring Edward Albert, Olga Kabo, Victor Wong, Yevgeni Lazarev, Basil Hoffman, Alexander Kuznetsov, Sergei Ruban
Cinematography Brian Capener
Film Editor Joshua Stallings
Original Music Emilio Kauderer
Written by Joshua Stallings
Produced by Jeffrey M. Sneller, Samuel Sneller
Directed by Barry Samson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Ice Runner began as a well-timed thriller. Back in late 1991, it was the first American film to be shot in the newly-opened Soviet Union. With authentic locations and the claim that it was based on a true story (not borne out in any explanation beyond advertising copy), this cold-war Gulag escape drama was filming in Moscow when a failed coup d'etat broke out, garnering plenty of publicity from the US news services when the crew and star Edward Albert beat a hasty return to the states. Major studios were in line to distribute it, the golden hope of every independent production. Alas, due to a producer/director riff, the film was held up for months for substantial reshoots and recutting. By then, its topicality factor was lost, and the studios were not longer hot for it.


Arms broker Jeffrey West (Edward Albert) is caught making a payoff to a Soviet minister as part of a 'guns for Afghan rebels' deal, and is tricked by the CIA into signing a confession so the U.S. won't be implicated. When his train is wrecked on the way to a maximum security prison in Siberia, West swaps identities with a dead man and is re-routed to a less-severe work camp. There he tangles with a brutish prisoner, and attracts the suspicion of camp commander Kolya (Yevgeni Lazarev). He also makes friends with Fyodar (Victor Wong), an odd shaman-like gypsy who inspires him with the idea that running to freedom might work. Kolya suspects that West is a fake, and sends for the wife of the dead man he's impersonated, the beautiful Lena (Olga Kabo). But she keeps West's secret and a relationship blossoms. After more bouts of brutality, the commandant is reassigned to another camp on the edge of the Bering strait. Obsessed with his prisoner, Kolya has West transferred there as well, almost taunting him to try to escape by running the 37 miles across the icy strait to Alaskan territory. West makes a try for it ...

Blessed with production values impossible to buy - real Soviets, Soviet machinery, vehicles, helicopters, trains (some real railroad cars were wrecked for the film), ice-breaking ships, caribou, and even a polar bear - all The Ice Runner needed was a compelling story. But the obvious direction goes for visual clichés in almost every situation, instead of simply telling a story, and this Great Siberian Escape comes off as a slow affair with pretty Hallmark Card scenery.

With a partially-reshot opening showing the CIA abandoning him, Albert's Jeffrey West is meant to be sympathetic even though he is actually totally guilty of his crime. Smuggling arms to Afghanistan was meant to be heroic then, but has taken on a new significance with current events. Except the survival story we're given has nothing to do with politics, or, for that matter, even Russia. Although the accents and the millieu are excellent, almost everything that happens to West plays like reject ideas from The Fugitive television show: the identity swap, the persecution, and having to get a complete stranger to pretend to be his wife on a moment's notice.

The lack of depth in the concept shows when West runs a gauntlet of ordinary-looking Russian females, to encounter Olga Kabo, a drop-dead beauty, natch. She has no reaction to the news that her husband is dead, and is soon making soulful eyes at her new partner, which leads up to steamy slow-dissolve lovemaking. Siberia and Gulag life isn't bad at all.

The sex angle has to share time with a running duel between West and a colossal musclebound thug who seems to be in the picture for no reason except to provide a fight in every reel. Their eventual fisticuffs combat is grossly over-directed, resembling a poor man's Jean Claude DamnFool movie, with West turning out to be an accomplished kickboxer. The action cutting is well handled throughout, but the material is resolutely corny.

Big Trouble in Little China's Victor Wong provides a wizard-like cross between Charlie Chan and Yoda, spouting disposable nuggets of wisdom with groaning regularity. He's also photographed in an annoyingly reverential way, silhouetted with his pet hawk, etc.

While these three themes are percolating, the cruel Kolya character encourages mayhem, and shoots a few innocents himself. His victims include, in yet another drawn-out, faux-Peckinpah sequence, West's best pal. When the final Ice Run happens, the sheer reality of the setting lifts the show to an impressive finale: Edward Albert really seems to be running in dangerous proximity to a massive icebreaker, and the giant herd of caribou that greet him are impossible to fake. The crew clearly struggled through tough location work unheard of in a modern film this modestly budgeted.

Image Entertainment's DVD of The Ice Runner is an okay package, with good graphics but an unexceptional transfer that's letterboxed (1:85) but not enhanced. The 111-minute show looks reasonable most of the time, but on a large monitor the colors aren't as bright as they might be. A trailer is included, along with a set of fairly uninformative cast bios. An explanation of the 'true story' claim would have been welcome. Even a cursory account of the pioneering production's adventures in the newly-opened Russia - wrecking trains, working in the polar region and dodging a counterrevolution - would have raised the interest level for this unique, ill-fated show.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Ice Runner rates:
Movie: Fair+
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer, bios
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 19, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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