The director Gabe Polsky’s “Red Penguins” qualifies as a follow-up of sorts to his 2014 documentary “Red Army,” titled after a nickname for the Soviet Union’s near-indomitable national hockey team. But this time, sports are almost incidental.
The new documentary is interested in hockey as a commercial entity. It delves into what happened when, in the early 1990s, two owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins took a financial stake in a cash-strapped franchise known as the C.S.K.A. — sometimes called the Central Red Army for its previous relationship with the Soviet armed forces — as the team’s greatness was slipping.
Although this episode might sound like a footnote in the story of Russia’s transition to capitalism, “Red Penguins” is filled with tales of cultures clashing and misunderstood intentions. The de facto protagonist is not an athlete but a goofy, curly-maned marketing executive, Steven Warshaw, whose up-for-anything attitude made him a fun drinking buddy for his new Russian pals.
The Americans viewed Russian professional sports — and the advertising that came with them — as an opportunity for feeding players to the N.H.L. and for providing stateside corporations with inroads to the new Russian market. But first they needed to lure fans to the Moscow arena, which required gimmicks like strippers, free beer or a Gorbachev-Yeltsin look-alike contest. Not everything went to plan. A Jeep might have seemed like a great prize for a lucky spectator, but Warshaw says the winner was so afraid of being robbed that he negotiated a deal on the ice for cash.
As recounted here, Warshaw and the other Americans came to expect that the team’s profits would be skimmed and that they couldn’t particularly trust anyone. Valery Gushin, the team’s general manager, laughs heartily about Warshaw’s fear of the Russian mob.
Polsky is a scattered storyteller, and it takes a while for “Red Penguins” to coalesce from a haphazard assembly of clips and reminiscences into more than a macho specialty item. The lighthearted tales of cultural exchange give way to what the film suggests is a backdrop of corruption and even suspicious deaths.
If “Red Penguins” doesn’t always strike a satisfying balance between the glib and the grim, the broader topic — the commercialization of hockey — affords it a novel lens on Russia’s economic transition.
Rated PG-13. In English and Russian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. Rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.