Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them. This episode: Poland, Christmas 2016
Christmas in Poland was utterly delightful. Properly seasonal temperatures, twelve-course banquets on Christmas Eve, and – the biggest surprise for me personally – a craft beer scene to die for. Watching local movies there, however, turned out to be more of a hassle than I’d expected, and the picture above explains why: when you’ve got Lord Of The Rings 1 playing in virtually every cinema, there’s very little screen space left for anything else. Granted, there were also a couple of Polish films on offer, but with one notable exception they were all in afternoon matinee slots. And when you’re on holiday in a country that only has seven hours of workable daylight in December, you want to be spending those afternoons seeing the sights rather than sitting in a darkened cinema. So we had to go for that notable exception – Pitbull: Niebezpieczne Kobiety, which you’ve possibly seen already.
I’m not joking about that last bit. Niebezpieczne Kobiety (Dangerous Women) was released in the UK very shortly after its Polish debut, as part of an ongoing experiment to see if Polish migrants living here are as keen to see new films from the home country as, say, Indian migrants. The stats would seem to say yes: it was the fifth highest grossing film in the UK on its opening weekend, despite a total lack of coverage from the mainstream press. Both it and its predecessor – Pitbull: Nowe Porządki, released earlier the same year – went on to gross over half a million pounds each in the UK, the sort of box office that some of our domestic movies would kill for.
Obviously, if I’d watched Niebezpieczne Kobiety during its UK run, it would have come with English subtitles, a luxury I didn’t have when I saw it in Warsaw. But that previous paragraph hints at another problem: this film is part two (well, um, we’ll come back to that) in a franchise, meaning there’s a whole layer of backstory which I wasn’t aware of when I saw it. It’s a film with a huge number of characters – ten are highlighted on the poster – and I’d no idea which ones were meant to be familiar and which ones were new. Still, let’s dive in and do what we can.
In essence, it’s a crime drama, pitting a bunch of cops against some sort of biker gang. The cops are led by a bloke with a beard and a Mohican who looks like every guy who’s ever served you in a BrewDog bar. This at least differentiates him from the rest of the squad, a bunch of interchangeable potato-faced slapheads in bad leisurewear. The bad guys in the Pitbull films are generally the ones with suits and hair, although our main contact point in the biker gang is a fireman (I’m basing this on his jacket labelled ‘straż’, the single word of Polish that I learned from Soupy Norman) with an injection habit and a ridiculously short temper.
But there are loads of other characters circling around them, with varying degrees of moral ambiguity attached. There’s a rookie female cop, who appears to have joined the force just to get revenge on her boyfriend for shagging a policeman: the comic relief of Sergeant BrewDog’s girlfriend, making the most of being under police protection: a man with hair and a suit running a financial racket that’s possibly a key part of the plot: and many more besides. The film is still throwing new people at you three-quarters of the way through, when we’re suddenly introduced to a tattooed bodybuilder in jail, presumably a popular character from the first film. He ends up on some sort of bizarre day release scheme that allows him out of prison to look after babies or perform acid attacks on his enemies.
For all of writer/director Patryk Vega’s attempts at a big screen look (more often than not meaning desaturated colour and gratuitous drone shots), this very much has the feel of a TV drama, with a huge number of interweaving subplots represented in scenes lasting no more than a few seconds or so. The big difference from TV is a series of hugely OTT bursts of violence every ten minutes or so, cranked up to levels that are reminiscent of bad 80s DTV thrillers: when someone’s hit with a car, for example, the job’s not considered complete until they’ve been backed over two or three times. There’s no denying it’s watchable, though this may just be the fascination of watching a crime film where you literally don’t understand what crime has been committed: all you can follow is an escalating spiral of retaliation on both sides. But it all feels a little unsatisfying at a basic cinematic level.
Sadly, this was the only film we got to see in a Polish cinema during our visit: not quite enough for a full length Monoglot Movie Club piece, which normally needs two films to compare against each other. Given my utter confusion over the plot of Pitbull: Niebezpieczne Kobiety, it struck me that there was only one possible candidate for a supporting feature. So on my return to England, I ordered a DVD copy of Pitbull: Nowe Porządki, the first film in the series.
This is the point where I learned that it isn’t exactly the first film. Nowe Porządki translates as New Orders, which feels like the sort of title you’d give to a franchise reboot: and that’s exactly what we’ve got here. Patryk Vega made his first Pitbull film in 2005, and followed it up with three seasons of a TV show: the two films released in 2016 are effectively his attempt at launching Pitbull: The Next Generation. This at least explains the DVD sleeve, which prominently features two characters who only have a scene or two each – they’re veterans of the TV series, handing over the baton to the new kids.
By comparison with the sequel, Nowe Porządki has a much more streamlined plot, or at least appears to on the surface. A Sean Pertwee lookalike is on a football special train with his young son when it’s hijacked by the rival team. During the ensuing scrap, the son gets a very nasty bang on the head. Flash forward a few years, and the son is confined to a wheelchair, while dad is going round kidnapping and murdering people like there’s no tomorrow. You’ll notice I said ‘more streamlined’ rather than ‘more comprehensible’.
It’s pleasing to see that I was right about the tattooed bodybuilder from the second film: he appears here as a hired goon for Sean Pertwee, but is non-threateningly comic enough to help you understand why they wanted to bring him back for the sequel. Still, given my confusion over the huge number of characters in Niebezpieczne Kobiety, it’s a surprise to discover just how few of them were carried over from the first movie (just four of the ten featured on the poster, in fact). The main one is Sergeant BrewDog, who’s completely front and centre in this particular investigation. His introduction into the Pitbullverse is rather spectacular: within four minutes of screen time he picks up a girl at a nightclub, has sex with her, beats up a guy in her apartment before he’s had chance to put his clothes back on, gets stabbed when he goes out onto the street, and shoots the head off his assailant from a hundred metres away with the knife still in his chest.
That sequence of events is probably the closest thing these two films have to a conventional action setpiece. For the most part, the scenes of violence are short and disconnected, serving no apparent purpose other than a quick jolt to signify a change in plot direction or the exit of a character. You can tell that there was a requirement in Niebezpieczne Kobiety to up the ante, as the sequel has one violent scene every ten minutes compared to Nowe Porządki ‘s one every fifteen minutes. But the first film feels just as gratuitously nasty as the second, with a sequence involving a strip club owner and a set of curling tongs possibly pushing it ahead of the sequel. Once again, Vega throws in bits of random visual style, notably an early overhead shot which reduces the attacking football gang to a set of menacingly long shadows on the ground: but he still has a problem making everything hang together.
It’s possible to watch Nowe Porządki without dialogue and just about keep a grasp of what’s going on – certainly more so than the sequel. But even then, there are odd little things that pop up to baffle you. To me, the most baffling is a running theme between the two movies about how porous Polish prisons are: you can lock people up, but they still seem to be able to get out at will and cause further mayhem. Is jail more of a nine-to-five thing over there? I dunno. I suppose I could watch Nowe Porządki again with the subtitles on and try and get an answer to that, but I’m quite enjoying the confusion, truth be told.
Still, if you fancy trying this sort of thing out for yourself, the experimental release of Polish films in UK cinemas is continuing (with subtitles, though). The next one planned is Po Prostu Przyjazn, which was being heavily advertised during our Christmas visit, and comes out over here on February 3rd. It’s a romantic drama with a large cast, which surprisingly includes Sergeant BrewDog himself, Piotr Stramowski. I suspect this one will have fewer people being repeatedly run over with cars, but you never know.