It’s hard to dislike Tom Hardy as an actor. Whatever cinematic challenge he takes on, from atypically brainy blockbusters like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises to taut dramas like Bronson and Locke, he always gives it his all, digging under his character’s skins with a diligence and canniness that elevates him above possibly any other actor of his generation. Along the way, he’s found particular success in embodying strong, silent types, the kinds of men who more resemble wild animals than well-mannered gentlemen. Hardy’s characters are like caged wolves – as much as you want to reach in and pet them, you might lose your hand if you do.
In Child 44, the actor is up to his usual tricks. As Leo Demidov, a dedicated security officer tasked with cracking down on traitors in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hardy plays another hardened man’s man, one ruthless enough to make his living hunting anyone and everyone who attempts to break free of their totalitarian society. Fortunately, even beneath a (surprisingly solid) Russian accent, he’s terrific. There’s no denying Hardy’s incredible talent for bringing the most unlikable of protagonists to multi-layered life. Unfortunately, both for him and for us, that performance is just about the only redeeming aspect of Child 44. To the shock and dismay of this reviewer, a fan of Tom Rob Smith’s crackerjack source material and of much of the talent assembled here, the film is otherwise a dud.
Perhaps the April release date should have tipped me off. But the involvement of a sturdy director (Daniel Espinosa, who graduated from the excellent Snabba Cash to tight thriller Safe House) and a stellar cast (also boasting Noomi Rapace and Gary Oldman) gave me hope that there was a reason to see Child 44. Instead of entertaining, though, the film drags audiences through the literal and figurative mud, expecting them to accept the grueling slog that is life in the Soviet Union as an inevitability of a thriller set there.
Actually, using the word “thriller” to describe Child 44 might be a word crime punishable by an extended stay in the gulag. Espinosa handsomely stages a couple of scenes, but he evidently didn’t trust the editor to do their job and tighten up a shockingly slack narrative into something remotely watchable (this final product is an agonizing 137 minutes). Outside a few moments in which the director finds the appropriate grit and grime to mount an intense action sequence, he outright fails to engage the audience. The amount of scenes that bore almost to the point of tears is inexcusable and, as a whole, Child 44 is as much a pulse-quickening affair as cold, flavorless borscht for breakfast, lunch and dinner is a balanced diet.
Espinosa shouldn’t bear the brunt of the blame for Child 44, though. The buck really stops with screenwriter Richard Price, whose work is riddled with first-draft errors, bungled plotlines, clichéd characters and a pace slower and more demoralizing than a Soviet winter. What’s really surprising is about this is that Price is no novice – with The Color of Money, Shaft, Ransom and episodes of The Wire under his belt, he’s proven himself an exceedingly solid writer. But with Child 44, he completely loses control of myriad subplots and supporting players, burying what should have been one of the year’s most atmospheric thrillers under mounds of useless exposition.
It may be difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on if you’re in the theater (not that this reviewer would ever recommend buying a ticket, or even sneaking in, to see Child 44), so here’s what you need to know. Back in the good ol’ days of Soviet Russia, homicide was considered as foreign a concept as Betty Crocker and baseball. “There’s no murder in paradise” is an oft-repeated, if never attributed line. As such, when Leo is tasked with investigating the deaths of young boys found naked and savagely slaughtered near train tracks around the country, he’s pressured to console (read: hush) the families and call the deaths little more than tragic accidents.
Eventually, though, Leo’s party turns on him, and he ends up banished to a Russian backwater alongside his possibly traitorous wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace), who can’t disguise how hard it is for her to tolerate her husband. Increasingly obsessed with tracking down a serial killer whose existence is roundly denied by the state, Leo partners with a savvy general (Gary Oldman) and finds himself hunting a monster even as his former comrades (including a snivelling Joel Kinnaman) come looking to silence him for good.
There’s more than that to the story, but Price ladles on the backstories and B-stories so haphazardly that even the main plot ends up muddled. Adding to the confusion is the fact that some actors attempt Russian accents to varying degrees of success, while others, including Oldman, whom Hardy and co-star Jason Clarke have both cited as one of their acting idols, don’t even make the effort. As a result, Child 44 ends up as one of those awful period thrillers where no one actor appears to be on the same page as another.
On paper, Child 44 should have been terrific. With its stacked cast and complex premise, the potential for an engrossing thriller was remarkably high. But the film is unquestionably one of the year’s biggest disasters, a tedious and tangled affair that’s about as inviting and likeable as a Communist interrogation session. Just say nyet.
An oppressively boring, unappealing and often incomprehensible misfire.