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In Theaters


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Adam R. Holz

Movie Review

The Machine is based on a true story. Well, kinda. Then again, not at all.

Let me explain.

In 1999, Bert Kreischer (now a professional comedian) spent a semester in St. Petersburg, Russia, as a college student ostensibly studying Russian.

Russia, the film suggests, wasn’t a very friendly place back then. So much so that the American teacher leading the class felt compelled to hire a man named Igor—a banditi, a member of the Russian mob—to be the class’s handler and protector. She gave the class strict orders not to interact with Igor. He was there to protect them. Not to be their friend.

Protect them from what, you might ask? Well, from the rampant crime that—if you take this movie’s story at face value—saturates every facet and minute of Russian life.

But our hero Bert—a hard-partying Florida State student with a reputation as a drinker who could go toe-to-toe with, say, Thor—wasn’t about to pay attention to his silly teacher’s instructions. Bert and Igor soon bond over their shared passion for guzzling vodka. Bert, trying to impress his new gangster friends, tries to use a Russian word for “bada–” to describe himself. Instead, he mistakenly dubs himself The Machine.

It sticks. And, frankly, Bert is a drinking machine.

When Bert’s class takes a train trip, things go seriously, seriously awry. Plastered out of his gourd, Bert is recruited to help mob members on the train steal everything of value from its passengers.

Bert is very drunk. He doesn’t have much choice. So he becomes their bagman, going door to door to collect the valuables of everyone aboard.

That part of the story is true. In fact, Bert Kreischer would go on to build a viral stand-up comedy routine on these exploits.

Everything that happens next, however, is a fantasy. An alternate-universe story of what happens 23 years later when Russian goons turn up at Bert’s daughter’s 16th birthday party.

Their leader, a ruthless woman named Irina, tells Bert that if he doesn’t help them find a watch that Bert stole that fateful night two decades before, his daughter will die.

With a gun in his back, Bert’s off to Russia again.

And there’s just one other detail: Bert’s dad (played by Mark Hamill) is going along for this crazy ride, too.

And believe me, crazy barely gets the job done as an adjective describing what happens next.

Positive Elements

As the story opens, Bert is in a therapy session attended by his wife and two daughters, too. He’s meandering toward the goal of taking responsibility for the ways his epic narcissism has torpedoed his family relationships. There’s a lot of backstory here, but suffice it to say Bert’s realizing and trying to become a better father and husband, and to repair the damage he’s done to everyone close to him.

Making progress has involved losing weight, putting down the bottle and unpacking his toxic relationship with his dad, Albert. Bert pretty much despises him, who has spent his entire life belittling him, mocking him and generally failing as a father. Bert suggests, in therapy, that his own failures are directly related to his dad’s emotional abuse.

One can imagine, then, that Bert’s not pleased when his dear-ol’ dad shows up for daughter Sasha’s 16th birthday. In fact, they’re unloading verbal ammunition against each other when Irina, the Russian mobster, shows up and unloads a round of the real thing to show that she’s serious.

In a blink, Bert and Albert are kidnapped and on a posh plane to Russia in search of the watch that Bert stole 23 years before. In the absurd story that unfolds, they each work (albeit grudgingly at times) to protect and rescue each other.

In its own strangely earnest way, The Machine emphasizes the importance of family; father-son relationships; and the possibility of healing and redemption. Bert also has some a-ha realizations about his own insecurities and fractured sense of identity and self-worth.

The film also delivers some strangely poignant revelations in the vein of It’s a Wonderful Life. Bert learns that his life has had a positive impact on many people in Russia, most notably his old mobster “friend” Igor. The man tells Bert that he gave up his life of crime because Bert told him how important it was simply to do what makes you happy. Igor realized that killing people didn’t make him happy, so he retreated to a remote Russian village, settled down with a woman there and had about a dozen kids with her. The film depicts these desperately poor people as living an idyllic life together in their small village. It’s another surprisingly tender and strongly pro-family moment in the story.

Spiritual Elements

Igor says that the Communists destroyed a church in his village when they came to power decades before. But Igor has since recreated a church-like Orthodox shrine in the building built on the church’s ruins. He says it has enabled him to feel closer to God, and to forgive himself for all the people he killed.

At one point when Bert thinks he’s going to die, he freaks out verbally about how he’s going to hell and meet the devil.

One of the Russian bad guys wears a big cross around his neck.

Sexual Content

Upon entering Igor’s village, we see an elderly man bathing, naked, outside in a basin. The camera glimpses his bare behind as he bends over while washing, and the scene is both startling and shockingly graphic, albeit obviously played for laughs. Bert makes a joke about circumcision in this scene, too.

Bert and Albert are separated for a long while once they get to Russia. When Bert reconnects with his dad, Albert is very high on speed and bragging about how the drug has enabled his sexual performance with a young woman who’s loitering next to him. He also talks crudely about different sexual positions, both with this young woman and with Albert’s former wife (and it’s unclear whether she’s deceased or whether they’re divorced). Bert asks his dad whether he used condoms with the woman.

Crude verbal references to male and female anatomy turn up throughout the movie. Bert’s schtick as The Machine involves taking his shirt off to make comedic hay with his big belly, and we see quite a few scenes of him shirtless. A repeated joke is made about Bert’s chest, with multiple characters joking that he has “t-ts.” There’s a sarcastic conversation about what someone would pay to have sex with an unconscious female character who’s repeatedly called a “whore.”

We see several of Sasha’s friends in two-piece swimming suits at her birthday party. Bert and his wife, LeeAnn, are shown in bed together, and they kiss pretty passionately a couple of different times.

Someone’s look as described as, “If James Bond were a homo.” A flashback to the first train trip finds Bert getting ready for what he thinks is going to be an intimate encounter with a young woman in his class; he puts cologne on his hands, then obviously (though offscreen) reaches into his pants with the stuff, too—and then starts screaming in pain.

Violent Content

As the story unfolds, the violence here amps up. Irina isn’t afraid of unleashing mortal violence on anyone who gets in her way. But it turns out the two people who get in her way the most–rival criminal kingpins–are actually her two brothers. The three siblings are competing for their father’s affection and blessing, with each trying to outdo the others in terms of violent thuggery.

What that means, in the most basic sense, is that almost everyone is trying to kill almost everyone else. And kill they do. Scores of nameless minions get shot, several in the head. Bert himself shoots one baddie in the head, leaving a gaping wound in the middle of his forehead, even though Bert says he was aiming for the man’s legs.

Someone gets his throat slit horribly, but he doesn’t die immediately. In fact, Bert’s fist gets stuck in the mortally wounded man’s throat, and he can’t pull it out. We see a horrific decapitation (it’s always a bad idea to hang your head out of a moving train), and the dead man’s torso flops on top of Bert, his neck stump spurting blood. Another man gets stabbed with a pocketknife, and the blade remains in his chest for much of the rest of the movie. At least one person is impaled. Another has a huge wooden spike shoved through her calf. (Bert removes it, vomiting, and both Bert and that person faint.) Multiple people are unexpectedly shot at point-blank range in brutal executions.

Fistfights and martial-art melees fill many other scenes. Someone gets tossed out of a train. Threats are made against Bert’s daughter, Sasha. A henchman is casually murdered by suffocation via a plastic bag over his head.

Much is made of the importance of Bert’s family connections. But when Russian family members murder each other in cold blood, it’s treated as a joke.

Crude or Profane Language

At least 75 f-words, including three paired with “mother.” One fully spoken c-word and four more verbal references to the “c-word.” About 20 s-words. We hear 25 or so misuses of God’s name, including 10 that are paired with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused about a half-dozen times. We a handful of uses each of “b–ch,” “a–,” “a—hole,” “h—,” “p-ss,” and “p—y” (with the last of those always being a synonym for “coward).

We hear about 10 crude references to the male anatomy using three or four different slang terms for it.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Bert’s entire reputation is based on his ability to drink massive amounts of alcohol. Accordingly, many, many scenes in the movie feature Bert and others imbibing. They’re often quite drunk, sometimes so much so that they can barely even walk.

Bert’s drinking exploits have accidentally made him something of an urban legend in the years since his first stint in Russia. There’s a vodka named after him, and we continually see billboards of him throughout Russia over the course of the movie.

Lines of a drug (perhaps cocaine, perhaps meth) get snorted at a party. Someone vapes. Bert eats a 20-year-old pot brownie and has a hallucinogenic trip as a result in which he takes advice from the younger version of himself (and gives some, too).

Drug and alcohol usage are largely treated as a joke, although we do hear that Bert is trying to curb his alcohol intake.

Other Negative Elements

Multiple scenes picture people vomiting. We hear a demeaning joke about autism. Bert and Albert often treat each other despicably. And, as mentioned, calling Bert a recovering narcissist might be a bit too generous.


This madcap fever dream of a movie feels a bit like a mashup of Napoleon Dynamite, Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Kill Bill.

I have to admit, the story features a surprising number of feel-good moments. Some of them are tender and earnest, and they highlight the importance of dads dealing with their issues so that their issues don’t wreck their kids.

But let’s not get carried away here. Because this is a film with issues galore itself.

We’re supposed to laugh when Bert’s hand gets stuck in a guy’s throat, when someone gets decapitated, when an old man bends over naked while bathing and the camera zooms in for a close up. We’re supposed to laugh when Albert waxes eloquent on how speed has amped up his virility with a young Russian “plaything.”

We’re supposed to laugh when …

Ah, I’ll stop there. You get the point.

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Adam R. Holz

After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.