Major Grom: Plague Doctor hits the ground running with an exciting chase sequence whereby our titular hero, Major Grom, is chasing bank robbers through the streets of Saint Petersburg. And while it might merely be a prelude to establish the film’s tone, it inadvertently reveals all there is to know about what’s to follow. That is to say that style is given preference over substance and characters’ actions may be meaningless provided they looks flashy.
Based on the Russian comic book of the same name, the film marks Major Grom’s feature-length debut and following a 30-minute short, an English language teaser, and early flirtations with American studios, its makers chose to keep it Russian. It has been a tumultuous production and whether keeping it Russian was a smart move or not isn’t clear, and the fact that it is best viewed with subtitles gives a somewhat misleading perception of prestige.
Major Grom is a no-nonsense detective in the St. Petersburg police department’s Major Crimes division, and his reputation for breaking rules in order to catch bad guys precedes him. Respected for his results but resented for his methods, he is a renegade who works best alone. When the son of a billionaire is acquitted of a murder, despite proof of his guilt, he is set upon and killed by a masked vigilante wearing a medieval Plague Doctor’s uniform. The crusader’s actions are met with applause by the frustrated public, but when he continues to kill business leaders and social media influencers, it becomes apparent that he is little more than a grandstanding serial killer.
With an unwelcome rookie partner in tow, Grom sets out to catch the Plague Doctor and finds himself tangled with a social media corporation with two billionaire founders who have a personal connection with the vigilante’s first victim. What ensues is a messy story that shifts its balance from scene to scene and fails to offer a dramatic foundation.
Russia has offered some incredible films over the years and when Timur Bekmambetov’s Nochnoy Dozor (aka Night Watch) and Dnevnoy Dozor (aka Day Watch) arrived to global fanfare, it was clear that their film industry was capable of schooling Hollywood in ways to reinvent fantasy and action. Others have maintained a stylish momentum, with recent films like Coma and Guardians of the Night proving the Russian scene to be a worthy alternative to Hollywood’s comic-book obsession.
At first glance, Major Grom: Plague Doctor appears to rival the calibre of production of a Marvel or DC film, with its high concept action sequences, acrobatic camera work and whiplash editing, but when you tear away the glittered wrapping, there’s a very underwhelming product within.
Characters are caricatured with little to no context or back story, and the central figures are essentially xeroxed from various Hollywood prototypes. The comical qualities of the background players are mostly misguided, causing a jarring juxtaposition to the overall narrative. At times, the film ventures into some darker areas reminiscent of films like V for Vendetta and Batman, yet the procedural elements feel closer aligned with stories like TinTin.
If bells and whistles are all you need from a comic-book movie, Major Grom: Plague Doctor may suffice. If you’re looking for a story with weight, perhaps this isn’t for you. And at a ridiculously arduous run time of 137-minutes, it may take a few attempts to reach the end.
‘Major Grom: Plague Doctor’ is now streaming on Netflix – watch it HERE.