CityUnpluggedA “Spaghetti Eastern,” this darkly comedic noir drama from 1993 was Estonia’s answer to RESERVOIR DOGS.  It’s dark, funny, fast moving and sometimes shocking–the opposite, in short, of what we’ve come to expect from cinema emerging from a certain part of the world (fact: Estonian cinema has apparently come to mean “slow, arty and obscure”…by residents of Estonia!).

CITY UNPLUGGED (TALLINN PIMEDUSES; DARKNESS IN TALLINN), was the first Estonian film to be made following Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union.  It’s said to reflect the political realities of Estonia in the early nineties, when the country was viewed as Europe’s “wild east,” i.e. a haven for criminals and miscreants.  For this reason CITY UNPLUGGED has been widely reviled in its native land, although it did accomplish its primary goal by becoming an international hit—and pleasing Quentin Tarantino, who voted it one of his favorite films of 1993.

It opens with a lengthy text informing us that a priceless Estonian stash of gold was left untouched by the Nazi invaders and subsequent Soviet occupiers, and is currently being transported from France to its rightful place in Estonia.  From there we’re introduced to Toivo (Ivo Uukkivi), a petty smuggler working in an electrical plant who’s hoping to go legit.  A cliché?  You bet!  He’s even given a long-suffering pregnant wife in the form of the fetching Maria (Milena Gulbe), who’s adamant that he give up his criminal ways.

Toivo nonetheless allows himself to be roped into an ill-thought out gambit to rob the Bank of Estonia, carried out while hundreds of people are gathered outside.  The gold stash is being delivered to the bank, and the people, ostensibly on hand to celebrate Estonia’s independence, are hoping to get their hands on portions of it.  Maria goes into labor as the heist gets underway, with Toivo stationed at the power plant, where he’s tasked with blacking out the bank so his fellows can make off with the gold.

The addition of Terje (Monika Mager), a plucky tomboy sent by Maria to find Toivo, is another annoyance.  Terje is falsely informed that Toivo has died, which only antagonizes Maria further.  As for Toivo and his fellow criminals, fear and suspicion quickly take hold, which gives way to infighting and, inevitably, killing—then all the lights go out and the bloodletting gets underway in earnest!

Given that this film appeared not long after RESERVOIR DOGS’S 1992 bow, it’s probably wrong to accuse it of being Tarantino-esque.  Anyway, the proceedings are much closer to something like KILLING ZOE or THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD than to RESERVOIR DOGS or PULP FICTION—which is say, one of the many nineties-era Tarantino wannabes rather than the real thing.

The production values are nothing to write home about, and the fights and shoot-outs that come to increasingly dominate the film are only partially effective, marred by an extremely clumsy use of slow motion by director Ilkka Jarvi-Laturi.  Yet the whole thing is so inventive it’s difficult not to get caught up in it.  Jarvi-Laturi also demonstrates a real mastery of tone, which is the area in which movies like this one usually fall short.  Here the tone is comedic but never too much so; as in Tarantino’s best films there are very real consequences for misbehavior.

I’ll conclude this review with a puzzled observation: the film is exhibited in black and white until the final fifteen minutes, when it abruptly switches to full color (the inspiration for the black and white-to color shift of KILL BILL?).  What Laturi’s reasons might have been for doing so I don’t know (budgetary would be my guess), but the shift makes for a serious distraction in a film that is otherwise stylistically consistent.

Ultimately I’m inclined to grade CITY UNPLUGGED on a curve given that it’s such an entertaining product—and hails from a part of the world that isn’t exactly known for commercial cinema.

Vital Statistics

Filmzolfo/Upstream Pictures

Director: Ilkka Jarvi-Laturi
Producer: Lasse Saarinen
Screenplay: Paul Kolsby, Ilkka Jarvi-Laturi
(Based on a novel by Paul Kolsby)
Cinematography: Rein Kotov
Editing: Christopher Tellefsen
Cast: Ivo Uukkivi, Milena Gulbe, Monika Mager, Enn Klooren, Valino Laes, Peeter Oja, Juri Jarvet, Villem Indrikson, Andres Raag, Martin Tulmin, Kadri Kilvet, Salme Poopuu, Ulvi Kreitsmann