Having never read the novel by Tom Rob Smith, I can't really comment on “Child 44” as an adaptation. Often, even I feel like a movie doesn't work, as long as it resembles the book, fans seem placated, and that might be the case here. Coming to it cold, though, my reaction is one of bewilderment. I have no idea what movie they thought they were making or why people flipped out for the book, because there's nothing in this film that would suggest a compelling story compellingly told.
Tom Hardy stars as Leo Demidov, who was orphaned and left in a miserable hellhole, eventually escaping and enlisting in the Russian army as a teen. When WWII came, he fought, and he eventually ended up in Berlin, where he become a propaganda icon thanks to his part in a pivotal battle and his posing for a famous photo. As the film gets going, Russians are adjusting to life in the '50s, and Leo works as an agent for the MGB.
At the time, thanks to Stalin's pronouncements, there was no murder in the USSR. That's not to say no one murdered anyone, but rather that the public policy was that murder was a symptom of the corruption of capitalism, so there were no murders in the USSR. That is obviously completely insane, and it is little wonder there is no USSR on the map these days. They were also crushed by the horrifying way in which individuals and groups could be disappeared and punished simply for their views, and by the decades of human-rights abuses that went on, and by their own doomed economic model. All of those things are part of the texture of “Child 44,” and there is certainly plenty that could be said through drama about all of those things.
Oddly, though, “Child 44” seems to be a police thriller first, a procedural about a child murderer who is leaving nude violated bodies in forests near train tracks. The film features many of the touchstones of the genre, right down to the moment where the film's protagonist says to Leo, “We are both killers, you and I.” The film's not a mystery, because there's no chance you're going to figure out the killer's identity before the film reveals it. In fact, the film shows you the actor's face about halfway through. The cross-cutting between the killer's story and Leo's story should create some sense of suspense, but instead, we're just treated to repetitive scenes of the killer picking up children he's going to kill, right up to the moment he crosses paths with Leo.
The majority of the film, oddly, focuses on the marriage of Leo and Raisa (Noomi Rapace). Perhaps there is a version of this story where everything that happens between them feels fresh or real or interesting, but not here. There's also another MGB officer named Vasili (Joel Kinnaman) who is so sneeringly, obviously a villain that I started to find it funny every time he showed up. It's a terrible role, and Kinnaman looks like he knows it. There's a lot of material here about people spying on each other and lying about each other and the way the system was designed to destroy connections between people and enforce blind loyalty to the state. There is plenty of energy spent trying to make all of this seem important, but it just doesn't connect, and a big part of the problem is that there is zero onscreen chemistry between Hardy and Rapace. I'm still not sold on her, and I think it's clear that the grand experiment to make her a Hollywood star is over at this point. Between her and Kinnaman, this feels like a movie made with everyone's second choices. I'm baffled by the screenplay credit. Richard Price is a muscular writer, and he's done some great work in the crime world over the years, but this feels like a screenplay by someone who has never written a film before, full of first-draft dialogue and weird structural and tonal issues. It's almost amazing how tone-deaf it is.
Daniel Espinosa did solid work with “Easy Money” and “Safe House,” but I'm not sure I'd say he's got any particular signature. If anything, he bungles enough of “Child 44” that I'm curious what he brings to a project. There are two large extended fight scenes in this film that are visually incomprehensible. The first is on a train, and it's just too much randomly shaking camera to be able to follow anything. The second is outside in the rain, so both people in the fight end up covered in mud, making it literally impossible to tell them apart from shot to shot. It is an ugly movie, and a flat one. Espinosa doesn't seem to be able to instill any sense of life or energy into any of these scenes, and at 2:20, the film feels like it runs at least twice as long.
The hardest thing for me to get my head around here is that this is the first part of a trilogy of books. There's very little you could do to persuade me to get excited about another film in this series, and I can't imagine after sitting through this that there's any real danger of anyone deciding to make the sequel. This is as long and bitter as the worst Russian winter, but without any of the fun.
“Child 44” is in theaters Friday.