Martin Cruz Smith has written seven novels about Russian cop Arkady Renko, with another one coming up later this year (2013). He is one of the great fictional creations, up there with Philip Marlowe and Matthew Scudder and one less well-known, Stuart Kaminsky’s Porfiry Rostnikov, also a Moscow cop. This was the first one, back in 1981, and the book was an immediate hit.
It was filmed reasonably faithfully by Michael Apted in Helsinki, because back in 1983 it was impossible to make a film in the USSR that had anything bad to say about the USSR, and this one had plenty. The USSR is thankfully now in the dustbin of history (we will piss on you, Nikita!), but it’s rewarding to see how fucked-up it was back then. (Now it’s fucked-up in a lot of different ways, and many of the same ways. Surprise!) Renko is part of what we would call the police force, though they dress in military uniforms, but in Soviet Russia everything was subject to the whims of the KGB. In the USA, local police are often pissed off when the FBI shows up to steal their cases and any glamour that might attach, while making sure that any blame goes to the local fuzz. Here, Renko would be only too happy to hand over a triple murder, because for one thing getting involved with the KGB is always bad news, and for another, he’s pretty sure the KGB is involved in the murders. But he sticks to the case.
These young people were murdered in the middle of Gorky Park, only a few feet away from a busy ice rink, and their faces were cut off. But Renko knows someone who can reconstruct faces from skulls. This was pretty new forensic science back then, though of course it’s well-known today from a thousand crappy CSI shows. So the movie is both a great police procedural, and a darn good thriller. It takes us into the world of sable breeding and other shady deals involving an American, nicely played by Lee Marvin. (My understanding is that you’d have to go a long way to find an animal as mean as a sable. Maybe a wolverine.)
Everything about the movie is first-rate, with one small exception. Everyone speaks English, with the understanding that they are actually speaking Russian. That’s fine, no problem. Brian Dennehy as a New York cop out to avenge the murder of his brother speaks with an American accent, which makes sense, as does Lee Marvin. All the rest of the cast are English (except Joanna Pacula, who is Polish, and speaks with that accent) and speak in their natural voices. But William Hurt, as Renko, tries for an English accent, and he’s not good at it. Was the idea to fit in with the Brits by speaking like them? What would the problem have been with him speaking in his normal voice? It’s distracting, every time he goes for a British pronunciation. I wish Apted had let him, or told him, to speak normally. Other than that, I loved this film.