Director: Daniel Espinosa
Stars: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace
2 (out of 5 Globes)
Only one film so far has truly known what to do with Tom Hardy. Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” is one of the perfect star-director-material unions — an outlandish, garish and gaudy art-monstrosity that made the most of Hardy’s suspiciously alien screen presence. He’s a stocky hulk who seems interiorized even when he’s allowed to rattle off cascades of dialogue; he seems to be observing the rest of humanity with a detached, smirky bemusement, never feeling the need to be one of us. You can sense it perhaps even moreso in clunkers like “Child 44,” which has no idea how to use him and which only makes a halfhearted attempt to rein him in before figuring why bother?
Based on the first in a trilogy of crime novels set in the Stalin-era Soviet Union, “Child 44” is a convoluted airport novel mystery with lofty pretentions — so after the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” bucks that it even co-stars, in a 90 percent thankless role, Noomi Rapace. She’s Raisa, whose chief character trait is she’s the beloved of Hardy’s Leo, a rock star MGB agent with a past. Leo has a pinched, psycho rival in colleague Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), who takes advantage of the ease with which lives can be smeared in their Soviet paradise that he gets Leo and Raisa deported.
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But wait: there’s also some guy going around murdering kids — someone we hear but don’t see, in a clumsy nod to the way Peter Lorre’s child killer is introduced in Fritz Lang’s “M.” “Child 44” means to fuse these two plots while, on top of this, hanging the Stalin-era, exposing it as the barely concealed hell that it was. There’s a lot of class to go around: in addition to our stars, it makes room (if just barely) for Gary Oldman, Paddy Considine and a one-scene easy paycheck for Charles Dance. (Oldman almost feels like he was slipped in in post.) It also boasts the first screenplay credit for the great urban rot novelist Richard Price since 2000’s “Shaft” remake, which theoretically should be nothing to sneeze at.
Alas, “Child 44” is really trash, and muddled, aspirational and joyless trash to boot. Whatever happened to Price’s script, if anything, it’s been cobbled together by director Daniel Espinosa (“Easy Money,” “Safe House”) into a clumsy slog that stumbles from one plot to another. It only comes alive when Hardy’s beating or stabbing people, and even then it feels over-determined: a knife-fight-cum-escape from a gulag-bound train is leftfield in its bloodiness, but that’s all Espinosa seems to know how to film. Its only enjoyment comes from watching and especially listening to Hardy, who treats his Russian accent to his usual sing-song line readings, muttering his way through dialogue that would be forgettable coming from any other mouth. Lots of actors get compared to Brando, but Hardy may be the real deal, at least in the sense that he’s following some eccentric muse, even on pricey, impersonal projects that are fathoms beneath him. If “Child 44” has any reason to exist it’s so hungry Hardy completists having something, anything else to chew on.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge