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Englishman Michael Apted was directing at age 21. By 1984 he had amassed some excellent credits: Stardust, The Squeeze, two episodes of the documentary "Up" series, Coal Miner's Daughter and Firstborn. Equally stylish and entertaining is his Gorky Park, from the novel by Martin Cruz Smith, as adapted by the celebrated Dennis Potter (Pennies from Heaven). With the best seller for a story, Orion Pictures' money and his own reputation, Apted had no trouble attracting a terrific cast. Critics loved the film for its unusual setting and interesting take on law and order, Moscow-style. I forget if Richard Fleischer's The Boston Strangler had graphic autopsy scenes, but I remember seeing a couple of corpses on metal slabs in Polanski's Chinatown and thinking, 'this is a first'. Mutilated bodies are central to the story of Gorky Park, which after ten years of shows like NCIS makes it seem almost contemporary.
In the dead of winter three young people are found in Moscow's Gorky Park, carved up to make identification difficult. Crack detective Arkdady Renko (William Hurt) of the Moscow civil police recognizes the work of pros and is only too willing to give the case over to the KGB. Major Pribula (Rikki Fulton) of that organization shows up immediately, but doesn't intervene. Arkady's superiors the General (Alexander Knox, in his last feature film) and Iamskoy (Ian Bannen) want him to pursue the case on his own. With the help of his assistant Pasha (Michael Elphick), Arkady digs deeper and comes up with a tricky list of suspects, none of whom seem to be telling the truth. Film worker Irina Asanova (Joanna Pacula) knew the dead trio and insists that they are alive in the West. New York cop William Kirwill (Brian Dennehy) has come to avenge the death of his son, a Christian missionary and one of the victims. The most promising villain is American millionaire businessman Jack Osborne (Lee Marvin), who is chummy with Iamskoy and exports Sable furs. Arkady heats up the cold case by having archeological restoration expert Professor Andreev (Ian McDiarmid of the Star Wars movies) sculpt new faces for the victims, to replace the ones the killer cut away.
Gorky Park is first and foremost a crackerjack mystery. The fact that our hero is a goose-stepping Soviet officer is secondary to his talent as a veritable Poirot. Arkady works in an atmosphere where the KGB or higher authorities can shut down any case, no questions taken. But the dedicated and honest Arkady puts such a good face on the illusion of justice that nobody wants to cross him either. This gives our hero the cachet of a classic Hammett-style lone dick on the case: the authorities around him are so corrupt that his quest for the truth can be expected to put him at personal risk.
William Hurt was only a few films into a career that would have soared had he a warmer screen image. Hurt plays intelligent men exceedingly well. He had a reputation for being aggressively so. In the late 1980s, I remember some testimony he gave in a court case making the national news, as it provided a dramatic video clip. We were surprised to see Hurt in the witness box, verbally overpowering the lawyer questioning him and then adding insult to injury: "FOOL!" Hurt's model policeman Arkady impresses his harsh superiors with his fervor -- and makes them feel that he's a far better Russian than they are.
In Gorky Park Arkady must tread lightly through the political labyrinth while playing semantic footsie with his number one suspect, the cagey Jack Osborne. Lee Marvin is marvelously smooth in the role. He refuses to take the bait when Arkady provokes him, and proves to be several steps ahead in the game.
Joanna Pacula's Irina is a survivor, a woman from Siberia determined to make it to the West. No matter what the temptation or emotional commitment, she refuses to admit anything to Arkady or give him any potential ammunition against her. It seems a sensible policy when nobody trusts anybody, least of all the average Moscow cop. Their love story is much more satisfying than is usual -- nobody plays stupid and throws him- or herself at the mercy of love. Almost. 1
The odd duck in the soup is Brian Dennehy's American, who barges on the scene, every bit as unwelcome as Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle in French Connection II. We're told that Dennehy's Kirwell learned Russian from his grandmother, a fact that suddenly reminds us that everyone's speaking English and we're accepting it as natural. As is often done, Apted gave all the Russians English accents, which means that William Hurt had to perform against a score of pros on their own turf, accent-wise. The film's level of acting is so good that we don't question it.
Neither do we question the Finnish locations, although we do wonder why Arkady Renko never drives through Red Square, just to admire the view. We are kept busy following an atypical, fresh story that has action or danger in almost every scene. The more our hero learns about the three victims, the more the KGB interferes. When Arkady's thuggish but very likeable pal Pasha mugs a KGB clod to obtain some secret files, we know that the cops may have gone too far. Along with Arkady, we wonder why they don't just kill him and close the case. Who is protecting who? Why is this investigation even being allowed?
Gorky Park works its way to some fine twists and tense action scenes. When the standoffs occur, director Apted manages to make the gunplay seem very fresh. The show ends with some pointed observations about the nature of freedom, Arkady's love of his homeland and Irina's final commitment to the decent cop who was honest with her from the start. Gorky Park is very much recommended.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Gorky Park looks great, with an HD transfer that makes the most of Ralf Bode's sensitive cinematography --those Sable hats and Ms. Pacula's face look very, very soft. James Horner's score didn't do much for me but it's well thought of in film music circles. I looked at his filmography, which is an unbroken string of hit movies. After a start with (guess who?) Roger Corman's New World Pictures, he's amassed over 150 composing credits.
An original trailer is included. Michael Apted speaks for about twenty minutes on a new interview featurette, discussing the movie in full detail. We learn a lot: how the Russians wouldn't let them film, how the English actors made things hard for William Hurt, how Lee Marvin was already sick but behaved like an enthusiastic pro, and liked having so many good lines instead of the usual tough guy banter. A major talent, Apted comes off as sincere and trustworthy; he's kept a fairly low public profile despite working on such big pictures. He's currently on Up 56.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gorky Park Blu-ray rates:
1. Listen up men, and learn a lesson about women - if you're kissing and she wants to cook a meal for you, for the two of you to quietly eat in private... that's a definite green light.
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T'was Ever Thus.
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