Child 44 is, ostensibly, a Cold War thriller involving serial killers, armed Soviet goons, secret police, and Stalin-era politics. On paper it sounds potentially great, and with a cast that includes Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman, Vincent Cassel, and Jason Clarke, with direction by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) from a Richard Price (The Wire) script it has the ingredients of an acclaimed prestige picture. But…it’s not. Far from it, actually. The film is poorly-conceived, badly paced, and wouldn’t know a “thrill” if it were plastered on a bottle of Stoli.
Hardy, who is an incredibly intense physical actor, nevertheless continues to struggle with accents. They’re pretty comical, actually, and so it’s no surprise that his Russian sounds like something out of Rocky & Bullwinkle. He plays Leo Demidov, a feared lieutenant in Stalin’s secret police force, the MGB. Lives can be ruined by a single wave of Leo’s hand, and with an army of soldiers at his command he helps ferret out traitors to the empire. Some of these people deserve it, but Leo knows that many more don’t. His job is to do as he’s told, though, but it gets harder when people close to him, like his wife Raisa (Rapace) become suspects.
So wait, is this a story about one man’s battle against an oppressive, murderous regime built on lies? Well, not really. Child 44 is about a bunch of things and thus nothing at all. There’s also the fact that a serial killer has been going around murdering children and dumping their bodies by train tracks. “There is no murder in Paradise” is the mindset in Moscow and the government takes that seriously, considering it a problem solely for capitalists. So they pretend the killings are mere accidents. Leo knows better, and when a friend’s kid is murdered he is compelled to find the culprit.
So wait, is this a story about a brave hero’s quest to vanquish evil in the form of a child murderer? Well, not really. Saying that Leo was “compelled” to do anything is a bit of a stretch. He kind of shrugs into the job after being demoted and shipped off to a remote armpit town to work as part of the militia under General Nesterov (Oldman). Leo’s motivation to solve the case is never the least bit convincing, nor are his frequent spats with Raisa who becomes his sidekick in the investigation. A number of superfluous subplots rear their ugly heads to distract from what should be the story’s main thrust. Why is one of Leo’s former soldiers (Joel Kinnaman) so consumed with jealousy he plots to ruin his life? Why is Vincent Cassel in this film as a random Soviet muckety-muck whose job is apparently to pace angrily around the office? What are other notable names such as Jason Clarke, Charles Dance, Paddy Considine, and Sam Spruell doing here at all? Likely they saw the wealth of talent involved and just signed on, script unseen.
It’s really the only explanation because Child 44 has a lot going on for a film that goes nowhere. Presumably there would be some drama surrounding the killer’s actual identity, but nope. It’s revealed matter-of-factly and means absolutely nothing. Espinosa has to eat all of the blame for the terribly slow tempo and awkward pace, but he does manage to build a chilly atmosphere and thick sense of paranoia. Price’s messy adaptation of Tom Rob Smith’s novel is the major problem as it utterly wastes the political backdrop and sets all of the actors up for failure. Nobody is very good here, but Hardy is the most out of his depth. Besides the shaky accent he still has the annoying habit of mumbling every other word. The Bane mask is off, man, enunciate! Actually, don’t bother. Save it for a better film than Child 44, one that isn’t as dry and dull as stale borscht.