As directed by Dejan Sorak, the Croatian film Two Players from the Bench functions on a variety of levels. On one, it’s a political document, examining the relations between Croats in Serbs in what once was Yugoslavia, exploring what their ethnicities really mean to individuals on both sides, and touching on the impact of the International War Crimes Tribunal on the post-war world. On another, it’s a document about Croatia today, a country apparently made up of deserted roads, few jobs, little money, and the shells of public buildings, picked clear by scavengers. On yet another, it’s a thriller, full of unexpected twists and hidden motivations. And, finally, it’s a warm-hearted buddy movie in which a Croat and Serb learn not only to coexist, but also to rely on one another. Despite -- or maybe because of -- its many directions, the film is surprisingly satisfying and entertaining.
Ante (Goran Navojec) a burly Croat and who looks and acts like a lost DeLuise, and Katran (Borko Peric) a scrawny, resigned Serb, couldn’t be more different. When they find themselves locked in a room together, Ante, who has been told that he’s there to help Colonel Skoko, a fictional Croatian war hero who is in hiding from the War Crimes Tribunal, explodes with rage, throwing himself against the metal door and shouting demands for his release. Katran, meanwhile, though he’s handcuffed, and believes he’s shortly going to have involuntary surgery to remove a kidney (he was sold by his best man, who is also sleeping with his wife), is quietly alert, but totally willing to accept his fate, whatever it may be.
When the two realize their units faced off during the war, and that Ante’s nephew lost his life in a battle with Katran and his compatriots, the latter is completely calm, even when he truly believes that Ante is going to kill him. Whether it’s the war, the disappointments of his life since then, or just his personality, Katran faces things with a strange serenity. He’s not resigned, exactly, just unwilling to bother with anger, or histrionics. Even late in the film, when an totally unexpected, devastating twist is thrown his way, he responds not with anger, but with disappointment, as if he’s sad, but not surprised, to have been let down yet again.
The ethnic tension between Katran and his loud, emotional roommate rapidly dissipates, and the two turn into friends and, in a way, teammates. They’ve been brought together, it turns out, by the Croatian secret service, because of their resemblance to a pair of missing Croats whose testimony can prove that Skoko didn’t commit the massacre he is alleged to have perpetrated, and thus free him from the threat of prosecution. Offered €20,000 for their testimony, the duo throw caution (and, in Katran’s case, ethnic loyalty) to the wind, and agree to undertake the task. Together, they set out to learn about their characters, and settle into a sweet, often comical friendship which, despite the fact that its lightness seems both inappropriate and a bit cheap in such a highly political context, is nevertheless appealing.
This lingering sense that the tone is somehow wrong continues through the film, because on can never quite get comfortable with deadly political realities being pushed aside in favor of a light-weight, not particularly well-acted buddy film. In addition, a female character is introduced whose primary characteristic is her need to greet strange men with blow-jobs; her mere presence is both unnecessary and indescribably objectionable. By rights, each of these things should be enough to damage the film beyond salvation, robbing it of most of its power and effectiveness. Somehow, however, they don’t. Against all odds and despite it’s own unevenness, Two Players from the Bench manages to be light and silly and political and suspenseful all and once. And though one leaves the theater thinking it wasn’t anything particularly memorable, the movie sticks in your mind longer than you’d ever expect.