On paper, “Child 44” seems like it would not be just a great film, but perhaps end up being one of the very best films of the year. It stars the wonderful Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace and Joel Kinnaman, working from a script by Richard Price (adapting a best-selling novel by Tom Rob Smith) and under the direction of buzzed-about Swedish director Daniel Espinosa. The plot is enticing, too: it’s a based-on-a-true-story murder mystery that takes place in Stalinist Russia, a nation state so perfect that, at least politically, murder simply cannot exist. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and for all the goodwill and promise “Child 44” engenders, it’s ultimately a convoluted, muddy (both literally and figuratively) and overlong bore that takes an intriguing premise and does absolutely nothing with it.
Part of what makes “Child 44” so infuriating and exhausting is that it feels like six different movies housed, loosely, under one roof, with the beginning of the movie being hugely removed from anything that happens later. So, at the start of the film we’re introduced to a young boy, orphaned during one of Stalin’s crueler campaigns, who ends up becoming a war hero and, after that, secret policeman for the Soviet Union. This is Leo Demidov (Hardy), who seemingly has it all, including a lovely wife, Raisa (Rapace), and a loyal squadron of fellow Soviets, including Alexei (Fares Fares) and the slightly off-kilter Vasili (Kinnaman). After Alexei’s child dies and the state rules it a train accident, even though it appears to be a homicide, Leo is shipped off to a small industrial town away from the comparatively bustling metropolis of Moscow.
That’s where he’s demoted in rank and made to work for General Timur Nesterov (Oldman), and also where he starts to investigate the murder in earnest, eventually figuring out that Alexei’s son was the 44th child murdered in this fashion. The main thrust of the narrative finds Leo trying to solve this massive case on his own, including returning to Moscow under the nose of his former superiors (and knowing full well how everyone he’s ever been associated with is undoubtedly being watched and catalogued). The film tries to make a compelling argument that Leo is driven by his own tumultuous childhood and virtuous sense of self, but it comes across more like he’s just bored. When a character describes him as nothing more than a “concerned citizen,” he doesn’t answer back, since that’s a good a description of his character as any.
Even more problematic is the haphazard reveal of the identity of the killer. Throughout the opening of the movie, his identity is kept shrouded in mystery; his face never appears on screen and his presence carries with it a ghoulish aura. But then it turns out who the killer is doesn’t really matter and at about the halfway mark, they just show who it is. Not only does this drain the movie of any suspense or tension (and, truth be told, both are in short supply in the first place), the character itself is a total nonstarter, because it’s ultimately someone who we have no knowledge of or emotional connection to. The killer is just some guy. There’s a very good actor in the role, but it’s still just some guy.
Espinosa is a director who received a lot of attention for “Easy Money,” a film that starred Kinnaman and was a huge smash in his native Sweden, but his films released here haven’t made much of an impact. “Safe House,” starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, was irresistibly high concept but ultimately disappointing; this is significantly fatter and even less satisfying. It’s unclear how much of this is Espinosa’s fault, however, since much of the action is conveyed cleanly, even when he insists on jittery, you-are-there handheld camera work (courtesy of British cinematographer Oliver Wood, who shot the first three “Bourne” movies and “Face/Off“). More of the blame, perhaps, should be placed on Price’s screenplay, which veers off course and into a tangled, thorny bramble of subplots, superfluous character details, and shifting narrative focus. This is, perhaps, the most disappointing and shocking element of “Child 44,” considering what a true genius Price is (this is the guy who has put his stamp on fare such as “The Wire” and “Clockers“). Having not read the source material, Price could have just been trying to make the best out of a bad situation, although the results are pretty inexcusable. The most fascinating thing about “Child 44” is probably its setting and the idea of investigating a murder when murder isn’t acknowledged (it’s a toxic byproduct of a Capitalist society). But this is probably the subplot given the least amount of exploration. Because we really needed a dozen scenes of Vincent Cassel, picking up a paycheck as an anonymous Russian higher-up, yelling at some insubordinate in his office.
Hardy, too, should shoulder much of the blame. Since breaking out in Nicholas Winding Refn‘s “Bronson,” Hardy has gained a reputation of being an actor who fearlessly jumps into both the physicality and mannerisms of the characters he portrays, whether it’s his back-breaking anarchist Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises” or the conflicted developer in last year’s terrific, sorely overlooked “Locke.” But Hardy is an actor who just as often gets lost in a series of affectations, tics, and dialects. Here he’s a hulking brute who harbors a secret sensitivity, and he once again commits to a heightened accent that borders on becoming a caricature. His Russian accent is so gummy, once again punctuated by his characteristic half-grumbled mumbles, that it becomes cartoonish. You half expect him to yell at someone about the secret location of “Moose and Squirrel.”
Nothing in “Child 44” adds up to much; the political backdrop and the period setting and all of those subplots and narrative tangents doesn’t mean a lot when the movie boils down to a typical fistfight/shoot out scenario that we’ve seen countless times before (and an unimaginatively staged one, at that). And “Child 44” could potentially lead to a trilogy of films; there were three books and the studio is keen on continuing, should the public demand it. But there probably won’t be much of a demand. As much as people hem and haw about wanting movies that appeal to adults and feature complex narratives, if this is what the result is, then bring on the superheroes. [D+]