It happens more often than it should: A cast of sterling actors is assembled for a movie that doesn’t come close to equaling the sum of its parts. And so it goes with director Daniel Espinosa’s dreary Soviet-era serial killer thriller Child 44. I use the term thriller somewhat loosely, because although the film is engineered to be a race-against-the-clock nailbiter, the film is so poorly paced and overstuffed your nails are never in danger of being bitten. It’s as tedious as a bottomless bowl of borscht.
Tom Hardy, who’s been on a roll over the past few years bringing his menacing brand of Method intensity to movies like Inception, Warrior, and Locke, stars as Leo Demidov, a Ukrainian orphan who escaped a horrific childhood only to rise through the ranks of Stalin’s fearsome secret police force, the MGB. Soviet citizens live in fear of both him and his band of Communist thugs. Even the innocent live in an atmosphere thick with fear and distrust. Hardy, with a heavy Boris-and-Natasha accent that’s more distracting than convincing, is increasingly disillusioned with his job, especially when he’s forced by his superior (Vincent Cassel) to investigate people he knows to be undeserving of the State’s interest.
Based on a novel by Tom Rob Smith, the film kicks into gear (albeit a slow, uphill gear) after the mutilated body of a young boy is found by the railroad tracks in Moscow. Since murder is considered a capitalist, Western disease, the crime is brushed under the rug. “There is no murder in paradise,” Hardy’s Leo is told in order to prevent further inquiries. But Leo refuses to buy the party line and soon finds dozens of other similar murders pointing to a serial killer plying his trade in Mother Russia. His stubborn insubordination leads him and his wife (Noomi Rapace, whom he refuses to turn on when asked by Cassel) to be exiled to a remote Soviet backwater presided over by Gary Oldman, who does what he can with very little. There, Leo conveniently discovers even more child victims and continues his tiresome sleuthing with action-sequence interludes that pack little punch and make even less visual sense.
Since the end of the Cold War, Hollywood’s lost its once-ravenous appetite for Soviet-set thrillers like Gorky Park. Which, I suppose, isn’t particularly surprising. The foreignness of the Soviet Union and the exoticism of life behind the Iron Curtain are now just quaint, mothball-scented notions of an era that now feels as distant and remote as the Ottoman Empire. Even so, Child 44 feels like a missed opportunity – a chance to tap back into the dread and paranoia that once existed under the hammer and sickle. Despite the game efforts of Hardy, Rapace, Oldman, et al., Espinosa’s dour, downbeat procedural is as lifeless as Lenin’s Tomb. C-