By Linc Leifeste | October 24, 2014
Director: Michael Apted
Writers: Martin Cruz Smith (novel), Dennis Potter (screenplay)
Starring: William Hurt, Lee Marvin, Brian Dennehy, Ian Bannen, Joanna Pacula, Michael Elphick, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid
1983’s Gorky Park, receiving its first Blu-ray release thanks to the fine folks at Kino Lorber Studio Classics, is an intriguing, if slightly idiosyncratic film, especially when watching it in 2014. It’s basically a “police procedural,” but set in Moscow during the Soviet era, a period which now feels like a distorted distant memory. Directed by Michael Apted, probably most famous for having directed 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter and 1999’s James Bond thriller The World is Not Enough, the film features a top notch cast of Russian characters all sporting British accents (including William Hurt, an American doing a pretty good British accent while playing a Russian police officer), including a young Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) as a creepy Russian forensic scientist who seems to delight in his work just a bit too much.
The film opens in the titular, snow-covered Gorky Park, its frozen pond filled with fun-loving ice skaters but both the ominous score by James Horner and the jarring camera work make it clear that this is not going to be simply a fun day in the park. Soon we cut to a nighttime scene near the pond with police inspector Arkady Renko (William Hurt) standing over three fresh snow covered graves. The unknown victims, two men and one woman, have been mutilated, both their fingerprints and faces removed. It’s a bloody mess that gets all the more messy when KGB agents suddenly show up, tampering with the crime scene. The freewheeling Renko suspects that the KGB could very well have committed the murders, making him hesitant to head up the investigation. As he’s learned from prior experience, it’s best not to cross the KGB.
Renko is assisted in his investigation by Professor Andreev (Ian McDiarmid), who attempts to rebuild the faces of the victims using their skulls. As the investigation unfolds, Renko discovers connections between the victims and several people: Irina Asanova (Joanna Pacula), a beautiful young Russian woman who he soon develops feelings for; William Kirwill (Brian Dennehy), American police officer and brother of one of the murder victims; Jack Osborne (Lee Marvin), wealthy American entrepreneur who has made a killing (so to speak) from the Russian sable fur trade. In the meantime, Renko’s partner, Pasha (Michael Elphick), is gunned down.
The plot is complex but adroitly paced, with the viewer never sure of the exact role of the clearly sinister Osborne or the KGB until the final reveal. The film’s ability to combine a slow, methodical pace with a taut feeling throughout is a considerable accomplishment. While the supporting cast is stellar, particularly the performances turned in my Marvin and Elphich, Hurt’s Renko is clearly at the heart of the film. For a 1983 American audience it was expected to see sinister KGB and Soviet bureaucratic machinations, but it was probably somewhat revolutionary to see a story of a good cop in Soviet Russia bravely facing off against them.
For his part, Hurt plays it with a heavy dose of cool and reserve. It works well in the early going but as we see him fall for Irina and lose his partner, with his life turned upside down in ways that are absolute, his persistent detachment becomes something of a puzzle to the viewer, only augmented by the fact that his personal life is at best vaguely sketched out. All of this leads to the climactic confrontation, shootout and resolution feeling almost anti-climactic, Renko’s cool reserve having seemingly become contagious to its audience.