Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
A serf, a samurai and a Jew walk into an oligarch’s Ukranian manor house…
“Once Upon a Time in Ukraine” is a Syrnyky Western, a Slavic stroll down Sergio Leone Lane. It’s just gonzo and goofy enough to make one peruse the credits for the surname “Tarantinovich,” because that’s what writer-director Roman Perfilyev is on about.
It’s an 1844 story about as historical as anything Leone or Tarantino turned out, a tale of a “bondsman” or serf named Taras (Roman Lutskyi) out to free himself and his lady love (Kateryna Slyusar) from bondage and a half-Ukrainian samurai (Sergey Strelnikov) determined to avenge himself on the samurai (Gen Soto) who murdered his mentor and took that father figure’s Katana sword.
The Jewish gun dealer who throws in with them could be an ally, or an opportunist living down to the “sneaky” stereotypes Taras doesn’t hesitate to trot out.
There’s a Cossack bandit, Bogdan Chuba (Yakov Tkachenko) leading a revolt against the landlords, oligarchs (Russians, maybe?) who enslave and sell serfs, sometimes to Japanese sex traffickers. But you know Cossacks. You either join him or face his wrath.
“Those who advocate equality present a threat to the system,” one of the fat cats reminds his fellow feline, in Ukrainian with English subtitles. As they ride around in sedan chairs and exploit the people, you just know they’re going to get theirs.
But our story has a lot of obstacles to the samurai and the serf getting what they want. At least the samurai is “an artist” with a sword. But as Taras thinks of himself as “a different kind of artist, a poet, a writer” how much help can he be?
There’s nothing for it but to acquire guns (the gun dealer, an Adrien Brody look-alike) and train Taras in using a Katana sword, which our samurai, Akayo, can weild to dismember his enemies and in a pinch, even fend off bullets.
“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” tone is set early enough and underscored by Akayo’s complaint about the script’s tight time frame for “training.”
“You haven’t learned a lot in two days,” he gripes in Japanese-accented Ukrainian.
Ninjas, opium smoking, duels, serving a meal on a naked woman, all manner of historically dubious firearms and anti-Semitic insults (“You circumcised schnitzel!”) pass through the sometimes jaunty 90 minutes of this Eastern/Western. We’re treated to a Ninja hiding in the pit of an outhouse, deciding who to shoot with a Cossack version of “Eenie meeny miny moe” — “A sackfull of crayfish rolled down the hill, one, two three, which one do we kill?” — and an amusing version of a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” gag.
It doesn’t all work, and the pacing isn’t as brisk as the material demands. But the swordfight fights are furious (Wirework!), the shootouts noisy and bloody and the third act provides a couple of genuine bellylaughs.
Tarantino may be retiring, but let’s hope writer-director Roman Perfilyev gets to roll cameras on more gonzo, bastardized history in a free Ukraine. He’s got the touch.
Rating: unrated, graphic violence, nudity
Cast: Roman Lutskyi, Sergey Strelnikov, Kateryna Slyusar, Yakov Tkachenko and Gen Seto.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Roman Perfilyev. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:30