"Child 44," a film noir set in Soviet Russia, makes 1953 look like a great time to be in law enforcement. You get a nice apartment, seats at the opera, your way with women. It is also, ironically, a great time to be a serial killer. Because Stalin has decreed that crime happens only in capitalist countries, you can't possibly exist -- so nobody dares to stop you.
As corrupt towns go, the Moscow of "Child 44" makes the Los Angeles of "Chinatown" look like Mayberry. Its hero is Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), a member of the state security agency whose job is mostly nabbing traitors real or imagined. When a friend's son is murdered by an unknown sadist, Leo dutifully covers it up as an "accident," but for once the lie bothers him. Against orders, Leo begins following a map of bodies to find the culprit.
The unusual setting of communist Russia for a police procedural, and the twisted party-line thinking that snakes through the story, initially promise a fresh take on well-worn material. Hardy, a square-built actor with brutish charisma ("The Drop," "Locke"), is an inspired choice to play our hero, and he's flanked by the dependable Gary Oldman as Nesterov, a sympathetic general, and a very fine Joel Kinnaman as Vasili, a treacherous colleague. Director Daniel Espinosa ("Safe House") knows his way around a good fistfight and also pays attention to period details and costumes.
Despite all that, "Child 44," written by Richard Price from Tom Rob Smith's bestselling novel, can't escape the contrivances, weaknesses and cliches of its genre. In a distracting subplot, Leo's wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace, the once-fierce "Dragon Tattoo" girl who now plays rescue-me roles), is accused of being a spy.
Perhaps to make up for its trivial story, the film strikes a heavy tone. Shot in grim blue and dirty brown by cinematographer Oliver Wood, "Child 44" ends up feeling less like a thriller than a Soviet misery index. The movie leaves its door open for a sequel, but the capitalist force known as the box office will ultimately decide.
Tom Hardy, An actor who avoids repeating himself
Tom Hardy, who stars in "Child 44," is an actor who doesn't like to repeat himself. In the past five years -- and in the four films below -- he's established himself as one of the screen's most diverse actors.
INCEPTION (2010) -- Even Sherlock Holmes would have had a difficult time deducing what was happening in Christopher Nolan's jigsaw puzzle of a movie about invading people's dreams. One thing was clear -- Hardy's turn as a master identity thief was the movie's breakout performance.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) -- In this film of John Le Carre's spy saga, Hardy entered the rogues gallery hall of fame as field agent Ricki Tarr, a rough-and-tumble type who was not above sleeping with a Russian operative's wife or slitting someone's throat.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) -- As Batman's archvillain Bane, Hardy showed off his physicality and his attention to character detail. For Bane's distinct voice, the actor created one that would display Bane's erudition and malevolence as well as his Latin roots.
LOCKE (2013) -- Hardy delivered a compelling and complex performance as a conflicted family man who endures a long, harrowing drive to be with the one-night fling giving birth to his child.
-- Daniel Bubbeo