Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Gorky Park

When I find out that a film is set in Russia, especially Soviet Russia, I can immediately make a few assumptions.  First, it is not a comedy.  I know, I know...Soviet Russia was famous for their comedy, but all their jokes end with punching Yakov Smirnoff in the face.  You can't make more than (maybe) one movie like that, so any film set in Soviet Russia is going to be a drama.
Even his fist wants to hit him.
My second assumption is that the story will involve secrecy and deception.  That's just how it is.  When you're in a country that monitors its own people, Big Brother-style, that's going to play a part in the movie.  I had never heard of Gorky Park before watching it, but it has an okay cast for the period and didn't sound like a propaganda piece, so I thought I would give it a shot.

Moscow police officer Arkady Renko (William Hurt) is called to a crime scene in Gorky Park, which is kind of like Moscow's Central Park (I think...there's ice skating, anyway).  Three murder victims have been found, all shot dead in the chest and mouth, and all three are missing their faces and fingers.  That fits the description of KGB-type killings, where they just make people disappear; Renko knows this and assumes that the KGB will take the investigation away from him at the first opportunity, to "investigate" it themselves.  The KGB does show up with suspicious immediacy, but they let Renko keep the case for some reason.

With shattered teeth and no fingerprints, Renko enlists the aid of a professor (Emperor Palpatine Ian McDiarmid) to reconstruct their faces.  While he's waiting for the prof to slowly finish his work, Renko does his best to investigate the case.  He really doesn't want to, because he knows damn well that if he implicates the KGB in a murder, he will likely end up without fingers or a face, too.  His Chief Inspector (Ian Bannen) won't take him off the case, though; in fact, he promises to protect Renko's back, no matter what he finds.  While that is probably meant to be reassuring, it raises the hairs on the back of Renko's neck.  William Hurt may not have been in Lost in Space for another fifteen years, but he clearly heard the "Danger Will Robinson!" warning.

In the due course of his investigation, Renko meets an American detective (Brian Dennehy), who is in town to investigate his brother's recent disappearance.  The two warily agree to share some knowledge, which leads Renko to a tentative ID on the victims, which leads him to a beautiful Russian woman (Joanna Pacula) and an American sable fur importer (Lee Marvin).  The deeper Renko digs, the more he finds out about people in high places.  And in Soviet Russia, knowing too much about important people is hazardous to your health.  Maybe it's because he is devoted to his job, or maybe it's because he's falling in love with the girl, but Renko puts it all on the line to solve the case.  All he needs to get all the pieces to fall into place are some identities for his victims, so he can figure out why they were killed...
"Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational reconstructed face!"
This is a police procedural, so the acting is somewhat limited.  Just as we don't ooh and ahh over Sam Waterston or Marg Helgenberger as actors, there's nothing to see here, people, move along.  William Hurt is fairly reserved and emotionally detached for most of the film.  And that's appropriate for his character, really.  Brian Dennehy turns in yet another performance where he is in a position of power, despite having obviously poor decision making skills.  This is a fairly subdued performance from Dennehy, so he's fairly likable.  Michael Elphick plays the none-too-bright partner to Renko, and he's about as good as the role requires.  Lee Marvin probably does the least acting out of anyone in the cast; he basically just croaks out his lines and you instinctively know that he's up to no good.  I like Lee Marvin, and his presence here is welcome, but this wasn't much of a stretch for his talents.  The only actor who actually emoted much in this film was Joanna Pacula, and she does a pretty good job portraying someone who distrusts authority (with good reason), but needs to go against her instincts to survive.  The rest of the supporting cast (including a brief appearance by Richard Griffiths) is fine, with most everyone playing their roles simply and efficiently.  But that's just my Western attitude imposing value on Russian acting.  After all, in America, actors play roles; in Soviet Russia, roles play you.  Wait...what?

James Horner's score is worth mentioning.  I'm no music major (my mother assumes from my childhood singing that I am tone deaf), but Horner did a great job amplifying the "something's wrong" feeling of the film.  He used pretty standard musical score instruments, like strings, horns and percussion, but they were all discordant.  It was an interesting way to supplement the story.

Michael Apted directed Gorky Park with what would have seemed like efficiency, if the film had been less than two hours.  His focus was on the story, for the most part, and the story was told well enough.  I appreciate his choice to not have the actors assume Russian accents (not everyone can pull off a Russian accent like Harrison Ford), although it makes the scene where Brian Dennehy is identified as an American by his voice seem a little silly.  I wish Apted had put a little more flair into this movie, though.  Procedurals are, by their nature, pretty cut-and-dry.  This didn't feel like a mystery or a conspiracy, but like an especially long episode of Law and Order: Moscow.  If Apted had played with the camera a little more, used some symbolism, or used some interesting establishing shots of Moscow every so often, this movie might feel like it is more than a police procedural.

Maybe that is my problem.  I have seen so many police procedurals on American television that a film version just seems like overkill.  The case doesn't seem that complicated when you watch it, and there is absolutely no question that Lee Marvin is a bad guy, so it's not like viewers are going to be surprised much by the story.  Of course, the film is spiced up a little bit by having the eternally middle-aged William Hurt have a relationship with a Russian beauty, but even that is predictable.  Of course the cop is going to fall for the beautiful witness, and of course the Russian woman in an American movie is going to be gorgeous, because all Russian women in American movies are gorgeous.  It's not like that in real life, though; all those years of putting vodka in their cereal catches up with them eventually.
Russian beauty, age 31
But I digress.  This movie is made pretty well, and it certainly fits within the boundaries of your standard police procedural.  In doing so, however, it bored me.  The story was too predictable and the format was too familiar to me.  It's not a bad film, but I can see more concise versions of it on any Law and Order rerun.
And, because we all know that the Russians aren't funny, here are some jokes about Russia made by President Reagan.

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