Set post-WW2 in the Stalin era of the Soviet Union, we meet the idealistic, diligent officer Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) who is left with the task of capturing and exposing spies believed to be infiltrating from within. Under strict instructions from his boss (Vincent Cassel) to remain on this path – and this path alone – he becomes sidetracked by a series of gruesome child murders taking place, which are being swept under the carpet and completely written off as accidental, given crimes of this nature do not happen in ‘paradise’, despite the fact that fellow officer Alexei Andreyev’s (Fares Fares) own son is one of the victims. With the support of his wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace), Demidov decides to take the law into his own hands and catch this merciless and barbaric serial killer himself.
Frustratingly, the narrative does not remain simplistic in any way, deviating carelessly from the core storyline of the child murders, going down many tangents and simply attempting to cover too much ground, and in turn, detracting from the emotional impact of the piece. Looking like this may become a classic whodunnit of sorts, instead we lose sight of that tale and engulf in a series of conflicting themes, such as Demidov’s marriage, his volatile relationship with fellow officer Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), the situation concerning supposed betrayer Anatoly Tarasovich Brodsky (Jason Clarke), or even scenes involving Gary Oldman, playing General Mikhail Nesterov – it all becomes overbearing, and then by the time we reconnect with the core narrative, we’ve lost interest.
Espinosa is also guilty of shying away from realism in parts, taking an all too theatrical approach with some sequences that are a struggle to abide by. Not a problem as such, but it’s inconsistent with the tone of the picture, which is evidently vying to be a brutally authentic depiction of life during such a time. Nonetheless, Hardy shines in the leading role, turning in a nuanced, domineering performance, carrying this film as best he can. He brings a sincerity and humanity to the lead, but that being said, his hero status feels somewhat contrived, as every single character that surrounds him is corrupt in some way, shape or form.
The exceptional cast – which also boasts the likes of Paddy Considine and Charles Dance – fails to live up to expectation, as given the severity and fascination in regards to the story, and the credentials of those acting it out – you can’t help but feel underwhelmed at what’s being presented. The pacing is all over the place, and there are moments where tedium kicks in quite dramatically. Given we’re dealing with a story that consists of children being savagely murdered, to have not earned that emotional investment from the viewer really does deem this title something of a failure.