Skip to main content

Stalin tells us that murder is strictly a capitalist disease.

Child 44
(2015)

(SPOILERS) I’m unable to attest to the quality of Tom Rob Smith’s best-selling airport novel of the same name, but Child 44 carries with it the sort of sterling cast that screams “prestige adaptation”. Certainly, that’s what I hoped for, despite the resoundingly scathing reviews. Unfortunately, they aren’t wrong. Maybe the actors were somehow hoodwinked into signing up, as this movie is a woeful piece of unmitigated pulp, its potential drowned in an unwieldy plot (one that seems to forget what it’s supposed to be about half the time) and directed with the same indiscriminatingly flashy eye that actually benefited Daniel Espinosa’s previous Safe House.


Given the lurid subject matter (it’s based on the 1980s case of the first officially identified Soviet-era serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, albeit set three decades earlier, with activities here confined to the murder of boys) and the oppressively totalitarian fear-based setting, perhaps everyone thought something diligently observed and astutely told was in the offing. Provided they hadn’t read the script, that is. Most of the reviews seem to have focussed on the cast’s accents, but really there’s such a history of this kind of thing it’s a bit baffling that critics were so fixated on such peripheries. It’s a rather facile aspect to take pot shots at, and short of making the whole thing in Russian one I don’t think that could have been satisfactorily addressed. Making it in Russia certainly wouldn’t have happened, since the country (wisely, in retrospect) refused Child 44 a showing there.


Ridley Scott, a vulture for anything vaguely cinematic and also much that isn’t (see Monopoly, if he ends up not making it), produced the picture through production company Scott Free, although presumably plans for the rest of Smith’s Soviet trilogy are on the backburner, or will emerge entirely disconnected now this has bombed (something similar looks to be happening with Lisbeth Salander). The Guardian review of the novel commented that “the desire for the plot to encompass every element of Soviet history eventually overrides any sense of artistic seriousness”, and Richard Price’s adaptation doesn’t appear to have done nearly enough streamlining to bring it into workable form. Everything about this picture’s structure is so suffocating, it loses sight of its essential status as a detective story. As such, tracking down the killer becomes incidental and haphazard. A couple of perceptive insights and that’s it.


The over-extended introduction should have suggested what a slog this would be, taking in child Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) surviving the Holodomor in the 1930s and then becoming a war hero. Cut to 1953 and he’s working for the Ministry of State Security (the MGB), dealing misery and torture to Soviet citizens as a matter of course. His wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) comes under suspicion due to inter-departmental rivalries, and Leo’s adoptive parents are very matter of fact about his need to denounce her; “And so you calculate. One dead. Or four”. But, believing she is pregnant, Leo professes his wife’s innocence and so is reduced to the role of militia officer and sent to Volsk, where Raisa goes from teacher to janitor.


Which is all well and good, if your main thrust is a tale of the fear and paranoia instituted by the Soviet apparatus, where there is no guilt until proven innocent; there’s only guilt, and guilt by association. Hardy is typically robust and haunted, neither a saint nor the monster he fears he has become, but such investment is wasted on him. Rapace, reteaming with her lead actor following The Drop, is solid, but their marital strife dynamic goes around in circles; the picture is two hours-plus not because of how intricate its murder storyline is but because everyone is so distracted by the tribulations of the Demidovs, and the depiction of the Russian establishment really doesn’t require Hollywood fireworks to over-garnish the dish.


This is at its most ham-fisted in the supporting turn from David Carradine Joel Kinnaman as the psychotic Vasili, a former subordinate to Leo who, because he went and shot a couple in the head in front of their children (Leo has a big heart like that; why, he even adopts the little scruffs at the end, which is very neat, tidy and groan-inducing) and Leo threatened to kill him for it, now nurses unending malice towards his former “brother”. Kinnaman’s character is so shamelessly puerile and ridiculous, I half expected him to turn out to be the child killer.


So Price, who as well as being a respected novelist worked on other (far superior) thrillers such as Sea of Love, Clockers and Ransom (and, er, the Shaft remake) resists any urge he may have had to turn Child 44 into an outright procedural. The potential is so strong, with a state that refuses even the possibility of a killer being out there (“Stalin tells us that murder is strictly a capitalist disease”; as such, even suggesting a murder has been committed is a treasonous act), but the whole remains unrefined and stodgy. 


Paddy Considine is the killer Vladimir Malevich (the “Werewolf  of Rostov” moniker of the real life case is namechecked), but there’s little he can do with the part. When he has the chance to talk about his crimes to Leo it’s the tritest of killer-and-captor treatises (they were both in orphanages, “We are both killers, you and I”). There’s a notable fake-out where the serial killer’s latest victim turning out to be his son waiting for him at the station, but that’s about as memorable as his scenes get.


I’m guessing Esponisa saw the vastly superior Citizen X (concerning the Chikatilo case) as the same sequence with a boy putting an object – a spoon – on the rails for a train to flatten it is shown in both (“You tried that with a kopek?”, which is used in Citizen X). That picture is more than half an hour shorter, but stuffed full of superlative character work and commentary on the Soviet system and never once strays from point in catching the criminal.  


One had to find nuggets where one can in a mess like this. Hardy is always a commanding presence, so any scene with him in is at least watchable, but anyone hoping for electricity when he’s playing against Gary Oldman will be disappointed; nothing here can compare with their encounter in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In any other scenario I’d be itching to see them team up again (they’re all set up for the sequel) but the kibosh can only be a relief.


It gets so that at one point Leo and Raisa head back to Moscow to follow a vital lead (as a husband and wife investigating team, like a Soviet era Hart to Hart), a pointless detour (admitted by Leo) that merely enables yet more skulduggery from the MGB and its informants. It culminates in a bloody train fight, in and of itself well executed, but by this point you’re wondering what movie you’re supposed to be watching.


Likewise, the theoretical apprehension of the killer is completely destroyed by the choice to turn scene into a wild mud fight when Vasili turns up; it might as well be Riggs fighting Mr Joshua at the end of Lethal Weapon for all the dramatic import it provides (scratch that, as Lethal Weapon’s climax towers over it; for a start Richard Donner knows exactly what kind of movie he is making).


There are decent scenes, sequences and performances in here (the opening section, with Jason Clarke as a wanted felon, pretty much establishes the context the picture will labour over another two hours; “I run because you are following me... and when you are arrested you are already guilty”), but one quickly loses patience with its rambling plot. This is at once too closely an observed milieu and setting and too demanding of deference to its subject matter to get away with the shoddy genre tropes littering it. Child 44 shouldn’t have been a slam-bang thriller with liberal doses of action, where a crude race against time to catch the killer is threaded in, in the most transparent and risible manner, no matter how much Espinosa and Price (and presumably Smith) wanted to treat it that way. That Leo gets everything back, a promotion, and his own division is the icing on a terribly crafted cake.



Actually, Leo’s near final scene, with Charles Dance’s Major Grachev (perhaps it’s just Chance bringing gravitas) works pretty well for all its chocolate box neatness, as he persuades Leo to admit Malevich acted as he did because of a “poisoned foreign heart”. Like another of Hardy’s starring roles this year, Legend, there’s a fundamental mishandling of the basic material, but at least there Hardy’s performance was able to rise above the movie’s limitations. Child 44 is sloppy, unfocused, failing to achieve even achieve the status of a passable Hollywood thriller, and entirely wasting its setting, story and cast. "This is not the work of some average idiot", someone says of Malevich; if only that were true of the film. If you want to see a great movie about the Andre Chikatilo case, you should check out Citizen X.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism

Yeah, it’s just, why would we wannabe be X-Men?

The New Mutants (2020) (SPOILERS) I feel a little sorry for The New Mutants . It’s far from a great movie, but Josh Boone at least has a clear vision for that far-from-great movie. Its major problem is that it’s so overwhelmingly familiar and derivative. For an X-Men movie, it’s a different spin, but in all other respects it’s wearisomely old hat.

Now listen, I don’t give diddley shit about Jews and Nazis.

  The Boys from Brazil (1978) (SPOILERS) Nazis, Nazis everywhere! The Boys from Brazil has one distinct advantage over its fascist-antagonist predecessor Marathon Man ; it has no delusions that it is anything other than garish, crass pulp fiction. John Schlesinger attempted to dress his Dustin Hoffman-starrer up with an art-house veneer and in so doing succeeded in emphasising how ridiculous it was in the wrong way. On the other hand, Schlesinger at least brought a demonstrable skill set to the table. For all its faults, Marathon Man moves , and is highly entertaining. The Boys from Brazil is hampered by Franklin J Schaffner’s sluggish literalism. Where that was fine for an Oscar-strewn biopic ( Patton ), or keeping one foot on the ground with material that might easily have induced derision ( Planet of the Apes ), here the eccentric-but-catchy conceit ensures The Boys from Brazil veers unfavourably into the territory of farce played straight.

I can always tell the buttered side from the dry.

The Molly Maguires (1970) (SPOILERS) The undercover cop is a dramatic evergreen, but it typically finds him infiltrating a mob organisation ( Donnie Brasco , The Departed ). Which means that, whatever rumblings of snitch-iness, concomitant paranoia and feelings of betrayal there may be, the lines are nevertheless drawn quite clearly on the criminality front. The Molly Maguires at least ostensibly finds its protagonist infiltrating an Irish secret society out to bring justice for the workers. However, where violence is concerned, there’s rarely room for moral high ground. It’s an interesting picture, but one ultimately more enraptured by soaking in its grey-area stew than driven storytelling.

Never underestimate the wiles of a crooked European state.

The Mouse on the Moon (1963) (SPOILERS) Amiable sequel to an amiably underpowered original. And that, despite the presence of frequent powerhouse Peter Sellers in three roles. This time, he’s conspicuously absent and replaced actually or effectively by Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody and Bernard Cribbins. All of whom are absolutely funny, but the real pep that makes The Mouse on the Moon an improvement on The Mouse that Roared is a frequently sharp-ish Michael Pertwee screenplay and a more energetic approach from director Richard Lester (making his feature debut-ish, if you choose to discount jazz festival performer parade It’s Trad, Dad! )

Dad's wearing a bunch of hotdogs.

White of the Eye (1987) (SPOILERS) It was with increasing irritation that I noted the extras for Arrow’s White of the Eye Blu-ray release continually returning to the idea that Nicolas Roeg somehow “stole” the career that was rightfully Donald Cammell’s through appropriating his stylistic innovations and taking all the credit for Performance . And that the arrival of White of the Eye , after Demon Seed was so compromised by meddlesome MGM, suddenly shone a light on Cammell as the true innovator behind Performance and indeed the inspiration for Roeg’s entire schtick. Neither assessment is at all fair. But then, I suspect those making these assertions are coming from the position that White of the Eye is a work of unrecognised genius. Which it is not. Distinctive, memorable, with flashes of brilliance, but also uneven in both production and performance. It’s very much a Cannon movie, for all that it’s a Cannon arthouse movie.

Yes, exactly so. I’m a humbug.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) (SPOILERS) There are undoubtedly some bullet-proof movies, such is their lauded reputation. The Wizard of Oz will remain a classic no matter how many people – and I’m sure they are legion – aren’t really all that fussed by it. I’m one of their number. I hadn’t given it my time in forty or more years – barring the odd clip – but with all the things I’ve heard suggested since, from MKUltra allusions to Pink Floyd timing The Dark Side of the Moon to it, to the Mandela Effect, I decided it was ripe for a reappraisal. Unfortunately, the experience proved less than revelatory in any way, shape or form. Although, it does suggest Sam Raimi might have been advised to add a few songs, a spot of camp and a scare or two, had he seriously wished to stand a chance of treading in venerated L Frank Baum cinematic territory with Oz the Great and Powerful.

So, crank open that hatch. Breathe some fresh air. Go. Live your life.

Love and Monsters (2020) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, Michael Matthews goes some way towards rehabilitating a title that seemed forever doomed to horrific associations with one of the worst Russell T Davies Doctor Who stories (and labelling it one of his worst is really saying something). Love and Monsters delivers that rarity, an upbeat apocalypse, so going against the prevailing trend of not only the movie genre but also real life.

It’s always open season on princesses!

Roman Holiday (1953) (SPOILERS) If only every Disney princess movie were this good. Of course, Roman Holiday lacks the prerequisite happily ever after. But then again, neither could it be said to end on an entirely downbeat note (that the mooted sequel never happened would be unthinkable today). William Wyler’s movie is hugely charming. Audrey Hepburn is utterly enchanting. The Rome scenery is perfectly romantic. And – now this is a surprise – Gregory Peck is really very likeable, managing to loosen up just enough that you root for these too and their unlikely canoodle.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.