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During the 1980s, a plethora of films set in the former Soviet Union become a kind of trend in Hollywood, from action comedies like Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s Red Heat to romantic dramas like Robin Williams‘ Moscow on the Hudson and Mikhail Baryshnikov‘s White Nights, to name a few. As tensions arose between the governments, entertainment was attempting to humanize the people while still propagandizing the deplorable rule of the Reds. No doubt they were doing the opposite on their side.
So it was with Gorky Park, a sensational thriller from director Michael Apted, set in Moscow (though filmed in Helsinki) about the machinations of a police investigation and the trouble it leads to when it becomes political, demonstrating of course the vast corrupt state that Communism was meant to represent in the Reagan years. And while the Rambos and Rocky’s were beating back the Commies in their own way, quieter, more realistic films were tackling it another way. This is Gorky Park, a story that paints both sides in dark colors and is a very well-made and equally well-performed film, that despite its age, remains a taut watch, a great mystery and a political thriller.
THE STORY: On a cold winter’s night out on Moscow’s Gorky Park, three young people, two men and a woman, are found dead, buried in the deep snow, their faces and fingers skinned clean right down to the bone. Assigned to the case is Soviet militsiya officer Arkady Renko (William Hurt) who has a history of making waves with the KGB, and when they show up but decide not to take over, he becomes suspicious they are setting him up. That’s smart thinking, it turns out.
Meanwhile, Renko meets two Americans. One is William Kirwill (Brian Dennehy), a New York detective in the country looking for his missing brother. The other is Jack Osborne (Lee Marvin), an older man but highly influential, a sable importer with deep connections. Renko also meets Osborne’s very young girlfriend Irina Asanova (Joanna Pacuła), a hardened woman with some secrets of her own. You can already see where that is going.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Films have become so overly-produced these days that we forget the heightened state of realism they so often seem to have, only made so obvious when looking back at the really great movies of the 70s and 80s that were far more grounded and gritty. Gorky Park is one such film, with Apted and cinematographer Ralf D. Bode, putting together a great looking movie that oozes with authenticity.
The movie looks like everything we expect Moscow was like in the 1980s even while the filmmakers never over do it, even keeping the accents to a minimum. In watching the story, pay attention to Apted’s superb direction as he subtly plays up the mystery. A major plot point hinges on a professor’s completion of a reconstructed face (performed by the incomparable Ian McDiarmid), which generates some great tension and is, like the entirety of the film, expertly paced and directed.
A GREAT MOMENT: In a bathhouse, Renko meets Osborne who is taking a break from the hunt for sable. Left alone, the two face off in a game of words, with the sophisticated American having the upper hand while it seems as Renko appears to be the bumbling oaf.
The conversation is about the murders and the suspected reasons why they took place, and we see that Renko is already having some suspicions. While Renko is made to look the fool, we realize that this not the case and the little cat and mouse between them escalates, evolving into an analogy of hunters and the practice it takes to catch their prey. Great stuff.
THE TALLY: Gorky Park didn’t do as well as others in the genre of the time but was well liked by critics, who praised the look and feel as well as the actors. An excellent mystery it would make for a great second half to a double feature with Roger Donaldson‘s 1987 No Way Out about a mystery in Washington D.C. and a Soviet spy. It too involves a bit of evidence that takes time to render, the result of which has great consequence. Gorky Park is an intelligent, thought-provoking film that deserves a closer look. It’s what to watch.