After seeing some clips of the action in T-34, I thought I had a good idea of what I was getting into: a Russian-made film about tank battles in WWII, featuring flashy, exaggerated, slow-motion action scenes. That was only part of the story, though.
The first issue I ran into was the bad but watchable dub available on Amazon Prime Video. Trying to track down a Russian video online was all for naught, as I found a few versions, but they featured a typical Russian idiosyncrasy of, instead of doing a full dub - replacing the lines in foreign languages - or using subtitles, the original dialogue will be featured while a Russian yells over it emotionlessly in his native tongue. So I opted for the weak and sometimes awkward English dub, just to avoid having to read subtitles while a Russian tried to yell over German.
Despite that, I felt like the film started off well enough. You have an adventurous introduction to the young tank commander sent off on his first mission for the Red Army on the outskirts of Moscow in 1941. It becomes immediately apparent that it's some sort of suicide mission, where his lone tank crew and their beleaguered machine are to fight off a Panzer division with help from only a handful of poorly-supplied infantrymen. It leads to a very compelling action scene where they outsmart the Germans and quickly whittle down the eight enemy tanks to one. The duel ends with both tanks crippled and the commander dragging his driver from the wreckage, only to take a bullet from the dying enemy commander.
Flash forward to 1944; Russians are being offloaded from train cars at a concentration camp. This is where it threw me off somewhat. I was expecting the whole thing to be the exploits of the tank crew during the war and wasn't prepared to suddenly shift to the young tank commander, arriving grizzled and crippled to the concentration camp years later, after being captured by the Germans. How? Everyone pretty much died in that tank battle. It was right outside Moscow. Who captured these nearly-dead tankmen and took them all the way back across Europe? Why didn't the nearby Red Army clean up after the battle? Why did any Germans that might have been there drag two dying men back just to be prisoners? It makes very little sense and beggars belief. That said, our young man is bearded and defiant now and just wants the Nazis to kill him and move on. The meek Russian girl they have translating to the prisoners is obviously immediately fascinated with him.
Soon enough, the German tank driver who apparently survived their battle is now a leader in the German military and is sent on a mission to train their young recruits to fight Russia's new line of tanks, a fight which is currently not going well for them. He discovers his brilliant young adversary is still alive and decides he's the man they need to show his German tank crews how the Russians operate. He tries to enlist him with threats, but as our Russian hero no longer cares about dying, he is unmoved. Of course, the villain immediately threatens his Russian translator and our hero folds like a cheap card table.
He picks out three men to crew the eponymous T-34 tank the Germans have salvaged from a battle. He's reunited with his old tank driver who he saved from dying and, despite the thought that there might be friction between him and his new crewmen over his potentially treasonous assistance of the Germans, he pulls rank, says a few sentences and they're with him, without question. They're going to have to play war games against the German tanks, except they'll be unarmed and the Germans will be using live rounds. Of course, they're going to try to use the tank to make their escape from the prison camp and head towards the Czech border. They start to clean the tank out and immediately find six shells inside, as the Germans didn't even bother to check if the tank was armed apparently. So they're able to hide the munitions for their escape.
I was expecting tank battles and perhaps a fun "tank vs. tank" war movie; I didn't really think it was going to be a "prison escape via tank" film. That somewhat undercut the action, to have the long, fairly shallow scenes of planning, the villain glowering at the enemy he respects while the hero grits his teeth and patiently awaits his chance to break out, fixing up their new tank, or the out-of-nowhere and desperately-immediate love interest in the form of the translator. Next thing you know, she's on the team and coming with them. Before long, in what seems like barely a few days of knowing each other, the two are confessing their undying love for each other and talking about how they'd been waiting their whole life to be together. I've seen better, more well-founded romance out of mail-order brides.
While the plot itself is sort of dismal and cookie-cutter and shallow enough to bathe a toddler in safely, the look of the film, the effects, and the battles all push it back hard in the other direction toward being very watchable, particularly compared to much of what has come out of Russia over the past couple of decades. Fortunately, no part of the movie takes too long to get through, so none of it is a slog even when the plot is laughably basic. If you're in it to watch slow-motion artillery shells tear through objects, you'll probably enjoy it well enough.