Child 44 is a grim, blackened, murder mystery, one where an exiled detective (Tom Hardy) tracks a serial killer of children through harsh, post-World War II Soviet Russia, a culture that denies the existence of serial killers.

But the real mystery is the film itself -- Daniel Espinosa's second directorial effort, after the entertaining yet inconsequential Safe House -- and how it came to be the strange, lumbering, non-functioning thing it is, the unhappy discard of a film industry that sometimes denies the existence of its own product.

A long, overstuffed mess of competing information, populated by English-speaking actors taking on silly Russian accents of the "Opulence, I haz it" variety, the film involves its talented ensemble cast struggling to find its way. Aside from Hardy, it stars Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Paddy Considine, and Jason Clarke, all of whom are misused. An actor arrives on screen, is given a few moments to help push the many plots forward, and then recite some unfortunate dialogue. Then that player is sidelined until needed again for more flailing.

The backdrop is the bureaucratic nightmare of Soviet life and its many betrayals. Within that framework there's a sad examination of a somber marriage built from fearful obligation. There's a bracketing story about orphans. And there's that murder investigation, a sort of road trip with attendant obstacles, the most fascinating of which involves the U.S.S.R. framing murder as a "capitalist disease," so that even discussing it openly is a crime. Then there are the dozen or so other threads involving treason, snitching, corruption, vendettas, closet homosexuals, terrible hellhole apartments, coverups, shootouts, and fights in the mud.

It'a much too much. The plot gears grind and lurch and push to keep up the pace. And it's also not enough, a six-hour miniseries crammed into a feature-length film, in need of time and space to stretch out and present itself properly.

But that's not how it's going to go down here and now. Child 44 is opening on about 500 screens nationwide, but much like the involvement of its respected cast, you'd be forgiven for not knowing that. It's based on a best-selling, award-winning crime novel by Tom Rob Smith. And it's script is written by acclaimed novelist/screenwriter Richard Price (Clockers, The Wire). It's produced by Ridley Scott. Nobody here is a nobody, which means that we're being told yet another story, one that arrives with no fanfare and would very much like to slink away unnoticed, determined not to make any sound at all, like an embarrassing secret Sputnik launch that failed.


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