‘Gorky Park’ Is a Cold War Film That Avoids National Stereotypes

This violent murder mystery is atypical among Cold War era films and stands up well today, but this Blu-ray could use a little more "special" in its "features".

It’s hard to believe how far we have come from the days of VHS tapes to the glorious beauty of high definition Blu-ray. The last time I saw 1983’s Gorky Park, I watched it on grainy, cropped VHS through a cathode ray tube television. Needless to say, the experience was underwhelming as compared both to the theatrical and DVD experiences. I mention this because Gorky Park has just been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and while this release is most assuredly a step up from the old “Video Home System” days, the Blu-ray has a definite “standard definition” feel to it with sparse extras. In short, this is not much of a leap forward from the DVD release.

This is something of a shame, of course, as Gorky Park is a fine film with good acting and an exciting plot filled with intrigue and surprises. This holds true even though the film is something of a Cold War relic with a number of dated anomalies that may confuse modern audiences. Michael Apted (who would go on to direct the James Bond flick The World is Not Enough) helms this murder mystery set in Moscow, which features a cast of Russian characters with British accents. This includes lead actor William Hurt (an American with a mostly convincing British accent, which somehow qualifies him to portray a Russian). Hurt plays Soviet Militsiya Chief Investigator Arkady Renko an independent-minded detective who finds himself in charge of a grisly murder investigation and at odds with the KGB.

This triple murder mystery is complicated by the fact that the victims’ fingertips and their very faces have been removed by the killer. Daunted by the lack of evidence and the meddling of the KGB, Renko enlists the aid of a professor (played by Ian McDiarmid) to reconstruct the victims’ faces based on their skulls (much as he has done with the long deceased for museum expositions). Noting that Ian McDiarmid also played Emperor Palpatine in the same year’s Return of the Jedi, it is somewhat humorous to see the actor holding a bloody skull by its hair. Welcome to the Dark Side.

Throughout this investigation, Renko meets a beautiful possible witness to the crimes in Joanna Pacula’s Irina Asanova and two American visitors played by Brian Dennehy and Lee Marvin, either of whom could be the key to the entire mystery. You can always tell the Americans in this movie, as they speak with American accents, as opposed to the inexplicable British accent that mark the Russians. This is, quite simply, the only division between American and Russian in the film. We are never really given any information on who speaks what language. Gorky Park is simply presented as if the Soviet Union is culturally Russian and linguistically British.

To be fair, the acting is generally so fine that one tends to forget the accents at all and simply get engrossed in the interesting story. Hurt gives a typically balanced performance: tough yet witty, determined, yet compassionate. Dennehy presents his character as an uncompromising and vengeful man but shows his true depth when the plot thickens. Lee Marvin almost steals the show in this, one of his final film performances. Marvin is typically hard-edged, but avoids the comical pitfalls many of his roles have had when he is given a lot of dialogue. He also eschews the silent menace that he often portrays in his most serious roles. Here, Marvin is complex, layered, articulate and mysterious. His very facial expressions give the impression that he is always one step ahead of both the players around him and the audience itself.

Dennis Potter’s screenplay was based upon the bestselling 1981 novel of the same name by Martin Cruz Smith. Like many film adaptations of novels, Gorky Park shows signs of serious cutting from the source material. Potter and Apted both work hard to keep the plot clear and interesting without resorting to overly expository dialogue; however, the story within Gorky Park jumps around and flashes forward a bit too much, giving the impression that large chapters of the tale were simply excised and making for an occasionally confusing final product.

That said, Gorky Park is also well done and unique amid the films of its day. While certainly made with the Cold War as its backdrop, the film never resorts to the Cold War clichés of the time. The rivalry and differences between Russia and the United States are explored (to a non-distracting degree) and the overarching sickle of the KGB is always a shadow upon the proceedings. However, Renko is presented as a very Russian (accent be damned) policeman who is also never a stereotype of what Americans of the era might have expected from Russian characters. There is no “GOOD” or “BAD” as defined by national boundaries or even ideologies.

Instead, Gorky Park is complexly built around a much more basic concept: Thou Shalt Not Kill. When innocent people are murdered and a good cop is fighting to bring the responsible to justice, does it really matter what country he pledges his allegiances to? Surely, in 2014 that may seem like something of a no-brainer, but back in 1983, audiences had a different expectation of Russian characters and the Americans who cross their paths. Looking back, Gorky Park was a unique and fresh twist on the trends of the day. As Arkady Renko has gone on to be featured in seven more novels (the most recent of which was published in 2013, the second of which was published six full years after this movie), surely something was done right.

Fans of the sole film to feature Renko may be thrilled to find it on Blu-ray; however, while the video and audio are “not bad”, they are also not quite what one would call “high definition”, which is the main attraction for a Blu-ray release. The other attraction would be special features, of which Kino Lorber includes only two. One is the original theatrical trailer (which is enticing) and the other is a new interview with director Michael Apted. Apted’s interview is informative and witty, and well worth the time to watch for fans of the film. That said, the overall image and sound quality, coupled with only these extras makes the $29.95 asking price hard to justify. Then again, it sure beats VHS any day.

RATING 6 / 10