The Eastern and Western Delights of ‘Comrade Detective’

In the 1980s, as the Cold War was reaching a new peak before its end, there was a Romanian mini-series produced called Comrade Detective, a state-funded propaganda piece meant to fuel Communist pride among the citizens. It followed two Bucharest police detectives, Gregor Anghel and Iosef Baciu, who are brought together to solve the case of the murder of the former’s partner by a villain in a Reagan mask intent on toppling Communism in the country. When the Cold War ended, prints of the show were nearly impossible to recover, and it seemed the series was lost to time as a cult curio of its time. Nearly 3 decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a search that spanned multiple countries, this piece of history is finally recovered and remastered with an English-language dub track from a famous cast consisting of Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jenny Slate.

Or at least, they do a fantastic job of convincing you that this premise is real. No, this series was not made in 1980s Romania. No, it did not appear lost to time and history. But that’s the whole appeal, the constructed farce of it all in the series created by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka. What really makes it so hilarious minute to minute is that they go to all the trouble of shooting the whole thing on location in Romania with a Romanian cast, and then they just dub over it. They do every absolutely everything they can to get the real thing and then dumb it down for western audiences. What really makes it interesting is even though it’s designed as a Communist propaganda machine, it takes its beats straight from Western storytelling tropes, like the buddy cop dynamic and action hero antics. Anghel is the classic boozer and rough around the edges type, and Baciu is the family man. Throughout the six episodes, they engage in heavy shootouts and chases while becoming great partners, classically reminiscent of 80s action films like Lethal Weapon, Commando and Die Hard.

Rhys Thomas directs each episode, and he has proven himself to be a master imitator. It’s strange you can call someone an imitator and mean it as a true compliment, yet the word still invokes negative criticism so we’ll step it up a notch – Rhys Thomas doesn’t just imitate, he masterfully duplicates. He’s got a proven track record, directing each episode of the incredible Documentary Now!, which if you haven’t watched it, hilariously parodies famous documentaries. Like I said before, a big part of the joke of Comrade Detective is that they went to all the trouble of shooting in Romania with a Romanian cast only to dub over it all. They went all that way to recreate the real thing just to toss it out the window for an english language dub. If there’s a knock on Thomas, it’s that he can’t do much else besides this niche thing he’s great at. His other directorial effort, the comedy film Staten Island Summer, is dreadfully lifeless and unfunny. He’s just in his element when there’s a level of parody or satire happening.

The Romanian cast are great at physically accentuating the more outlandish aspects of the show, but it’s the voice cast that really makes it all as insane and hilarious as it is. Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are having a great time, and if you’ve ever wanted to hear Tatum yell lines like “Great, he’s a pigfucker”, “DROP THE FUCKING JEANS!!!” and/or “I look like a guy whose dick doesn’t work!” then Comrade Detective is the show for you. The rest of the cast are a group of talented voices that really wring a lot of humor out of their dub jobs. Nick Offerman plays the chief of police in Bucharest and Jenny Slate voices Sally, a secretary at the US embassy who becomes the ambassador to Romania. Jason Mantzoukas and Jake Johnson voice two other cops on the force who are lazy and always make fun of our lead duo, and Bobby Canavale appears in an episode as a sleazy porn director peddling pno into Romania. Daniel Craig makes a supporting appearance in an episode as a secret catholic priest running services under ground and dealing bibles, and what makes it so hilarious is he does it in this ridiculously heavy Scottish accent for some reason. Talents like Chloe Sevigny, Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger lend their voices to other roles. Some of the lines are so out-of-place that if this were an actual foreign show, you’d think they did a terrible job of translating in the dub, which also just adds to the humor of Comrade Detective.

The anti-western bits of propaganda are actually quite clever in their lunacy. Smugglers who bring western items into the country are equated with drug dealers. A lot of smugglers die in this series, and the first instinct from the cops is to write it off as “they got high on their own supply” and then killed themselves. At one point, Inescu’s pre-teen daughter is found holding a pair of Jordache jeans in a trance, and Inescu reacts as if she’s stumbled upon a loaded gun that might fire off at them, urging her to put it down and come to him. There are still repertory screenings of Eisenstein’s seminal silent propaganda film Battleship Potemkin and the detectives discuss how it’s the greatest film ever made. One of my favorite sight gags in the series is when a group of protesters are outside the US embassy with various anti-American signs, and one in the crowd reads “Baseball is Boring!” On a more meta level, the very instance of dubbing in this foreign language show is a dig at how most American audiences won’t watch anything with subtitles. Before a few episodes, Channing Tatum and Jon Ronson give brief interviews about their interest in the history of Comrade Detective, and Tatum tells Ronson that the reason they did the dubbing is because the producers just said nobody reads anymore. Judging by our current president, he might be right.

Nu Shooz “I Can’t Wait” has never had the on-screen life it does here. It’s first introduced as our Reagan-faced villain stares out the window of a high-rise at the land he seeks to conquer. It’s as if this western bop underscores the evil of western civilization. In another episode, the priest is found dancing like he’s in some sort of demonic possession to the song, again, as if it’s this anthem of the evils of capitalism. There’s also a scene where he goes to an illegal casino and an eastern european cover – complete with accordions – of “Obsession” by Animotion is playing. Granted, I’m an easy sell for a show like this, I’m down for anything that resembles 80s action films. It’s as if they made this show with me in mind. But the way I look at it, with how terrible things are going right now, we all could use some good dumb laughter, and that’s what this show has plenty of. Be a good comrade and watch this show.

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