Solo Voyage (1985)
Here at Million Monkey Theater, we've made no apologies for continuing to fight the Cold War against those godless evil Rooskies, blissfully preferring to ignore the last 20 years of Glastnost-y history to concentrate on how much we still hate Commies (especially that bastard Che). To that end, today we'll be looking at a Soviet action film from 1985, back from those heady days when we could count on our president and populace to stand beside us in anti-Rooskie solidarity and boo and hiss when the hammer-and-sickle fluttered over the oppressed masses. Solo Voyage (also found as Single Swimmer, which makes it sound like a YMCA pool safety video) takes its cues from that most jingoistic American icon Rambo, with additional plagiaristic doses of Firefox and, perhaps more thematically, the rash of Delta Force and Missing in Action movies from the early Reagan years. Now, while I oppose out of sheer principle any attempts by the Red Menace Commies to sully the unimpeachable reputation of that fine example of American metaphor Rambo, I do have to begrudgingly admit that Solo Voyage has its finer moments. That's not to say that I don't still hate the Rooskies and all that they stand for, by god no! It's just that I'm man enough to admit that maybe, just maybe, the Soviets could entertain me (just a bit, for, like, 90 minutes tops). I feel the need to oil my machineguns now.
On to the show...
We open with a slew of stock footage clips of US Navy wargames at sea. A Rooskie news crew is aboard an American carrier doing some interviews and to show off their tacky toupees and dated Member's Only jackets. Notice all the beer cans and bottles littering the command bridge, not to mention all the cigars and cheap cigarettes being smoked. This is perhaps/surely an attempt by the producers to show the US Navy in a negative, unprofessional light. Nice try, because, hell yeah, real Americans can operate complex air operations onboard nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand and a stogie in the other, because we are awesome like that.
Off now to Florida, where we see that US Army Major Hessalt has been recalled from foreign stations to talk to the CIA boss Crowder. The Major is put in charge of a secret project in the South Pacific, involving missiles and stuff. The Major has got crazy-eyes, and we learn that he's a diagnosed sadist who got his jollies in Vietnam burning villages and shooting civilians. He has frequent sepia-toned flashbacks to his violent days in Vietnam, though it's unclear if he's remorseful or wistful of the good ole days. It's also quite possible that his hair has been spray-painted jet black.
The Major (left, in the Sonny Crockett linen suit) with Crowder.
Off to a golf course now, which to the Rooskies I assume is a hallmark of Rich Fat Cat Americans and their pointless capitalist pastimes and their stupid ill-fitting plaid pants. The Fat Cats here complain bitterly about the recent goodwill between America and Russia and how this is causing their defense contractors to lose business. This was actually a real worry in the early 1990s, if my professors back then were right, but luckily for the Military Industrial Complex they were able to replace the Red Menace with the Arab Menace and go on making their billions.
This is who the Rooskies think runs America...
The Fat Cats have devised a fool-proof plan to sink a cruise ship with a missile fired from Crowder's superdupersecret CIA base in the South Pacific and blame it on Rooskies. Then the world will slip back into the Cold War and Raytheon and Northrop can go back to making billions in defense contracts. We even get a shot of the cruise ship embarking hapless Malaysian cabin boys and overweight Australian tourists, unaware of their role in this dastardly Operation Northwoods-esque plan.
Wow, she's rusty, I wouldn't sail on that tub.
In a moment of downtime, the Major and his henchman Sergeant Eddie go to a swingin' fandango party. The Major is not happy and he's breaking under the pressure of his assignment (which he hasn't even started yet). It's odd that all the dancers look Caribbean, are we sure this wasn't filmed in Cuba and not Florida? A number of online reviews make this big deal about how chunks of Solo Voyage were actually filmed in Florida and how this was a sign of the thawing of relations between the two nations and all that, but so far the only thing that suggests they actually filmed this in Florida is a single half-second shot of a Florida license plate on the Major's car. That doesn't prove anything, really.
See the weird corners and the less-than-level paint job on the state name? It's a fake plate, no less.
Hey, Major, your date is a drag queen.
Alright, enough Americans, this is a Rooskie movie. We go now out to the South Pacific to a Soviet Navy ship on lonely patrol. By look she's a Kara class anti-submarine cruiser and by hull number (703), she's the Kerch. Throughout this movie the Kerch gets a ton of screen time, almost becoming a secondary character of her own, and I am impressed by the obvious level of cooperation between the Red Banner Fleet and this movie's production crew. A lot of the shots are grainy stock footage, but there are enough true on-board scenes to see that the State signed off on this movie.
Kerch (my, those Karas look top-heavy).
The ship has a small four-man Spetnatz commando team embarked, and these men will be the "heroes" of our film. The team's leader is a grizzled veteran with watchful eyes and sweaty brow. His name is Shatokhin, but I'm going to call him Ramboski, because he's clearly meant to be an homage to Stallone and his big knife. However, unlike the American Rambo, who was a chiseled hunk of man steak, Ramboski is a 50-year old dude with thinning hair and knobby knees who weighs less than an underage Korean gymnast. It's kinda hard to take him seriously as an action star, kinda like Shia LeBouf.
The Real Rambo.
Off now to a smallish sailboat on the blue South Pacific (wow, a really small boat for a trans-pacific journey), crewed by a young American couple on vacation. Wife Caroline is pixie cute, though she needs a cheeseburger, and her skimpy bikini is highly distracting to imperialist running dogs like myself. Her husband Jack is a totally yuppie Joe Cool with his acid-washed Levi jeans and his Farrah Fawcett hair and his stock broker paycheck. They are what every Rooskie thinks of when they think of bourgeoisie capitalists (and secret aspire to be...).
Happy capitalist swine.
At the CIA missile base they open the launch doors and start the countdown to fire. Their big-board display is extremely lame, like Lite-Brites from the 1960s on a painted plywood board, but it shows that the cruise ship is 500 miles away and dead in the crosshairs. The missile fires in a geyser of smoke and flame and flies off north. The sailboat, however, just happens to be in the target path of the missile, and it veers off to lock onto it instead. Clearly that missile is homing by internal radar? Is there no back-up mid-course guidance correction system? Really? Once it's clearly off-target, the Major self-destructs the missile right before it hits the sailboat, but the explosion is close enough to set it on fire and toss Jack and Caroline into the water. Friendly fire! Friendly fire!
See the little model rocket headed for the model boat?
Back in what I assume is Moscow, some Rooskie Admirals track back the missile's flight path and wonder what's up with this mysterious, uncharted island. The Kerch is the only ship in area so they send her to investigate, even though she's on a training mission (hey, they've been watching Star Trek, haven't they?). The Rooskies also pick up a distress call from the sailboat and rush to investigate.
Careful, Lenin is watching you.
Crowder is mad his plan failed and the Major is even more stressed now that he's the fall-guy for this mess. He and his goon Sergeant Eddie talk in angry voices about how much of an ass-pirate Crowder is and how they are being hung out to dry to save the CIA's skin. The Major even tells Eddie that Crowder raped his wife (though that might just be a lie to get him riled up). Now fully rogue, the Major decides to take over the base and get back at the CIA.
Amazingly, the two American sailors Jack and Caroline somehow got an inflatable raft, a big ham radio, and a tent out of the shattered and sinking remains of their little sailboat before it went under (sure). We see that they have landed on the very island that hides the base, and are trying to raise "Pago Pago Coast Guard Station" on the radio (which gives us a fairly good idea where this mystery island is, roughly speaking). Suddenly, they see a submarine's periscope offshore, pointing at them. Jack grabs a flare gun and shoots it off, hoping for a rescue, but the submarine is in league with Major and all it does is report back to him about the shipwrecked people on the beach, which doesn't bode well for them. On the plus side, Caroline is still rocking that low-rise bikini, which is mighty fine.
Of course, she's no Ann Curry...
The Major has some issues with all this, as it's not part of his master plan. In this scene the Major carries around a classic red and white Coke can everywhere he goes, perhaps a jab at we American's love of Coke? Are those commie bastards insinuating that America is addicted to teeth-rotting, sugary soft drinks and the megalithic capitalist hegemonies that produce and market them? Because if so, then...well, ok, got me on that one. But we make better cars, gawdammit!
Coke, the drink of psychopaths.
The Major, fuming and raging, gets a massage from an old Asian man, who makes the mistake of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Major's latent homicidal impulses get the better of him and he kills the old man with his bare hands, convinced Crowder has spooky spies everywhere. As he does so, his flashbacks return with a vengeance. Throughout this movie the Rooskies keep referencing Vietnam and all the terrible things the Americans did there (allegedly), including the Major and his love of burning villages. I wonder, in Russia, how is America's role in the Vietnam War taught in school? Slanted, I assume.
Pick on someone your own size.
With Sergeant Eddie's help, the Major now sets his nefarious plan in motion. We see them break into a nuclear storage room, shoot dead three soldiers who were clearly not on board with the plan, and wheel out a bulky nuclear warhead on a trolley. This warhead will be mated to another missile under the Major's watchful eye. This will be his bargaining chip now.
Hmm...that looks fake.
Back at CIA headquarters, Crowder is mad that everything has gone so wrong and he tries to contact the base to get someone to kiss his ass, but no one is picking up. Crowder and some Generals talk of the missile's range, saying that it could reach either Vladivostok or San Diego and if either one was nuked it would be a disaster. No way, of course, with that dinky little missile we just saw, you'd need a multi stage ICBM to reach that far. The Generals talk about the dangers of a limited nuclear war, and suggest that maybe they could win and maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea. Crowder, showing some sense, would rather just bomb the island flat before a shooting war starts. Unrelated, but the radio guy in this scene looks like Justin Long, that nancy dweeb from Going the Distance, which is enough for me to slightly love the CIA less (just slightly). I would like to think that the KGB has a large percentage of Justin Longs on their payroll, makes it easier to hate them.
Get a haircut, Justin.
Having arrived on scene now, the Kerch sends her embarked helicopter (a white and orange Kamov Ka-25BSh Hormone-A, if you must ask) off to the island with the commandos and a medical corpsman to check on the SOS signals from the shipwrecked American couple. All this reported by the submarine, lurking offshore. For some reason we get a sudden background music change right here, from bland unrecognizable poppy synthesizer crap to a stirring Leninist-era patriotic dirge sung by a chorus of Comrade Workers.
Hormone (dumb NATO codenames...).
The helicopter lands nearby and everyone is happy. You know, that island's flora is definitely more Caribbean than Pacific. And you see all that cactus in the background? That's only found in North/South America (i.e. Cuba). So, I suggest that most of the island scenes were shot in Cuba and the ship scenes shot in the Black Sea (where the Kerch was based in 1985). Jack, still suspicious, chooses to stay the night on the island with Caroline, and the Rooskies generously lend them their corpsman. Ramboski and his commandos then leave, promising to come back tomorrow and pick them up.
In yet another interlude back aboard the ship, Ramboski and what I assume is the ship's captain chat at length about something or the other. They are looking at a map and tapping it occasionally with a pencil, so I guess they are discussing what is on that island and where they mystery missile came from. Or maybe they are just talking about how they are going to invade America and make our women wear unflattering peasant dresses and wooden shoes. Did I mention that my copy of Solo Voyage doesn't have subtitles? I'm making most of this up.
The captain and his radar screen.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Kerch, the other commandos chit-chat in their quarters. Not sure what they are saying either, but I'm sure it's something about the superiority of collectivized farms and state centric economic markets. Battleship Potemkin had dialogue cards at least. I will say that that one commando has a fabulously thick mustache, something you rarely see on someone who isn't on top of Linda Lovelace in some '70s porno.
A fine Iron Curtain 'stache.
Back in the isolated missile control room, the dastardly Major has convinced everyone that the Rooskies have started WWIII and they need to fight back (yes, that is also the plot of Crimson Tide, and, to a lesser extent, Danger Beneath the Sea). It's odd that everyone now seems blindly willing to do the Major's bidding without even questioning his reasoning, were those three guys in the nuke room they had to shoot dead the only holdouts? Are they trying to say that American soldiers will follow their leaders into disaster without any attempt at independent thought? Because, knowing a little something of Soviet military doctrine, that's a lot of kettle/pot/black there, I'd say.
Lumberjacks of the CIA.
The Major orders a hit on the camp down by the water's edge to eliminate the witnesses. Illogically, he sends two soldiers in on hang gliders (!!!), floating down from the ridgeline above like Reb Brown in Yor. Jack shoots them dead with his trusty Army surplus rifle, but not before they kill the defenseless Rooskie corpsman and (sadly) super-cute Caroline (who has a lengthy death swoon worthy of Boromir). Jack shows very little emotion as she dies, however, which is a bit weird.
Must have been on sale.
Once Jack radios the bad word, Rooskie sailors in lifeboats come to the island to get the bodies of the corpsman and Caroline. Ramboski and his three commandos arrive in the helicopter and scout around. Jack runs after them, and begs to come along as he wants revenge on the people who killed his hot wife. There it is again, my pet peeve about people talking to each other right underneath spinning rotors (bugs me to no end). In the helicopter the commandos gun-up, cha-chinking their stockless AKS-47 rifles and clat-clatting their PKM machineguns in a scene that would make Marion Cobretti proud.
The Major sees the helicopter land nearby and orders a squad of soldiers out to capture them alive as he needs hostages. The background music for this scene is clearly an instrumental synthesizer version of Danger Zone from Top Gun, which seems really out of place. The helicopter leaves and it's now up to Ramboski and the commandos on the ground to save the day. Nice to see the helo return to the ship because I found it odd that the Kerch's captain would let his only ASW helicopter leave when his ship is in waters where an unidentified enemy submarine was reported.
In the jungle now, both sides moving towards each other through the thick underbrush. Jack's brilliant white shirt seems a tactical liability, as does his floppy Jodie Foster hair. The Americans get the drop on them and it looks like the Rooskies have lost. Ramboski spits in a universal show of displeasure, and drop his guns. But Ramboski suddenly starts throwing knives, killing two GIs (including one guy who dies instantly from a shallow knife wound). The subsequent gun battle kills two more, but the last runs off like a little girl.
Hands up, but he's crafty.
In a surprising moment, Ramboski and his men pick up the dead American's weapons, check the clips, and even toss aside their own empty guns in favor of the American weapons. It's just a little thing, you'd miss it if you weren't paying attention, but you just never see this in American action movies where the A-Team-inspired guns never run out of bullets. In every movie I watch there is one moment that makes me flip the thumbs-up, and this is it.
Ramboski does sweat a lot.
To a jazzy Benny Hill instrumental score, the commandos chase the last guy into a cave, but he escapes through a door disguised as a rock (just like in Terror of MechaGodzilla). It's surely on purpose that the American soldiers are portrayed as totally incompetent, as well as cowardly and underhanded. But it's probably no different than how American action movies of the same era showed Russian soldiers (Rambo III comes to mind, a movie so rich in anti-Soviet propaganda that it might have been funded by the Pentagon).
The jig is up and the Major now abandons the island as undefensible. Most of his men leave in a wicked cool hovercraft thingie (a half hour on Google tells me that most large Soviet warships carried small hovercraft for utility runs, I did not know that). The Major himself leaves in the submarine (a Tango class from the Black Sea Fleet, adding further proof to my filming location ideas) and he'll control things remotely from beneath the waves.
Aboard the sub.
At the Major's command, the nuclear-armed missile slides into the launch tube and the counter is set to 10 minutes to fire. They painted "US Air Force" on it, but that's clearly a Soviet P-15 SS-N-2 Styx missile, optimized for surface-to-surface operations (outdated 1950's tech so nothing sensitive shown on screen). It has a range of barely 50 miles, no where near the 1,000 plus required to hit San Diego, but the average viewer wouldn't know that.
The commandos find a badly-concealed air vent and gain entrance to the underground facility, working their way through the seemingly empty base. They turn a corner and run into an ambush by some leftover American soldiers (all armed with Russian and Czech-made weapons, not for nothing). Jack proves himself totally worthless in a combat situation, as expected, but the commandos take care of the bad guys pretty quick. Ramboski glares ruefully at Jack, but still lets him come along.
They make it to the missile room, under the deployed launch canisters, with just two minutes left on the countdown. Rather anti-climatically, Ramboski just flips the breaker and shuts down the power to the missile launcher. Well, that sucked, I was expecting more there, they had a pretty intense lead-up for such a lay-down ending. Our American Rambo would have leapt onto the missile as it took off, a knife in his teeth, and hacked away at the controls as it flew over the Pacific, and then jumped off at the last second before it crashed, and then maybe punched a shark or something.
Cheaper than gunpowder.
Ah but it's not over yet. Superasspissed now, the Major orders the submarine to sink the Kerch. The Karas were dedicated ASW platforms, and if alerted in time they'd be dangerous opponents for any submarine. Torpedoes whoosh, rockets roar and the submarine goes down without a fight in a sparkly flash of light. Anti-climatic again, don't you think? This movie won a special Rooskie film award in 1986 for "Best original solutions for the theme of patriotic heroism". Apparently that means taking the easy way out or backing down without a fight, pretty much like the entire Cold War, eh?
The sub is destroyed by disco.
But Sergeant Eddie and the rest of the American team are still out there, and before his death the Major ordered him to attack the Kerch with his two small missile boats (reflagged Osas). The Kerch responds with a volley of SA-N-3 surface-to-air missiles to knock the incoming rockets down, then shoots two more to blow up one of the Osas in a pretty good model boat exploding scene.
Osa with US flag.
The other Osa turns and runs back to the island, sees the commandos on the beach and starts firing at them with machineguns. The commandos shoot back with their small arms, hitting two crewmen (must be close inshore). This unequal fight doesn't last long as the Kerch rolls up and hits the boat with another rocket, leaving it out of action, drifting and burning. It looks like they actually took a real Osa missile boat and set it on fire for this movie, it looks that realistic. Well, maybe just smoke pots and controlled burns, or maybe they just burned up an old decommissioned Osa that they were going to scrap anyway, by 1985 they were all worn out 30-year old hulls. These are the things that keep me up at night, I need a life.
Thinking that it's all over, the commandos then just stand around saying patriotic things, laughing at Lenin-approved jokes, and smoking crappy Belomorkanal cigarettes. I don't know what's so funny, though they're probably laughing at our 1985 television shows and Kenny G and stuff. Self-important Commie bastards.
Gives you cancer, kids.
But on the burning, listing Osa we see that not everyone is dead as Sergeant Eddie stumbles to his feet, bloody, but angry and spoiling for revenge. Somehow he has a sniper rifle nearby and with his dying breath takes aim at the commandos as they stand around on the beach. Ramboski is shot in back and dies in his compatriot's arms. Pretty surprised at this on first viewing, but the more I think of it the more it makes sense in a uniquely Russian way. Noble self-sacrifice in battle is a common theme in Russian literature, and many a Stalinist-era novel has ended with the hero giving his life for Rodina. Makes sequels a bitch, though.
Ramboski is down!
The other commandos are deeply saddened by his loss, to the point of angry tears, and it's admittedly an unfitting way for an honorable soldier to die, even if he was a Rooskie. Keep in mind the timeframe here, 1985 was a tough year for Russia in general and for her armed forces in particular. They were mired in a seemingly endless counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, casualties were mounting from attacks from the mountain tribesmen, the Afghan government was riddled with corrupt and duplicitous locals, public opinion back home was strongly against the massive expenditure of money and material in such a remote land, and there was a general sense in the military that the whole mission was flawed and there was no end in sight. Huh, sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Are those who do not learn from history doomed to repeat it?
Anyway, an American B-52 bomber appears now, sent by Crowder to wipe out all evidence of the missile base. It's a lousy plastic model plane shot against a blue bed sheet, and the exploding island looks like firecrackers in a dirt pile. Not a good sequence at all, like something out of a 1970s era Godzilla movie, and it totally takes you out of the dramatic moment.
The stinger is the three surviving commandos going to the house of Ramboski's father to pay their respects. They also bring some tools to help with odd jobs, which must have been something Ramboski was talking about at some point (no subtitles, remember). The father knows without words that his son is dead, though he keeps his composure well. Pretty somber ending, I have to admit, almost made me misty. I still hate Commies, though.
Not bad, not bad at all.
[Editor Pam: I'm with you, that shot of them loading the nuclear warhead into the missile looks totally fake. Also, I think there's a procedure that has to be gone through to "unlock" nuclear warheads so they'll detonate. And I'm wondering how the head of the CIA and an Army major got so powerful they can start WWIII all by themselves. In defense of our Navy, I have to point out that since 1914, no alcohol may be brought aboard US Navy ships. Even wine can't be served in the officers' mess. I guess it's possible some could be smuggled aboard a ship and drunk in secret, but there's no way it would be drunk openly any place on board, let alone on the bridge.]
Written in February 2011 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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