Look at this movie’s cast: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace. Joel Kinnaman. Gary Oldman. Vincent Cassel. Paddy Considine. Even Jason Clarke shows up for a couple scenes. That’s a staggering roster of acting talent. It shouldn’t be possible to make a movie this bad with a cast that good. And yet somehow it is. And Child 44 is the proof.

Based on the best-selling and award-winning novel by Tom Rob Smith, the film follows the investigation into a horrific series of child murders in post-World War II Communist Russia (inspired, at least in part, on a real-life serial killer from the USSR). Stalin’s government apparently claimed that murder was “strictly a capitalist disease,” which meant that any suspicious deaths were hushed up and attributed to horrible accidents, and good, honest police work was almost impossible. (Even suggesting someone was purposefully killed was an act of treason punishable by excommunication or even death.)

So when Leo Demidov (Hardy), a decorated member of Moscow’s secret police, discovers his partner’s son’s death was no accident, he’s faced with a choice: Cover it up and continue with his promising career or find the man responsible and lose his job and possibly his life. The plot thickens after Leo’s superior (Cassel) reveals that a recently captured traitor (Clarke) provided a list of names of his co-conspirators, and Leo’s wife Raisa (Rapace) is inexplicably on it. Now Leo’s got an additional decision to make. Does he denounce his wife, or stand with her and face guilt by association?

It’s a juicy story, but the film of that story’s been drained of all its inherent juice, like a great cut of beef that’s been left on the grill too long. Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) and screenwriter Richard Price (a superb novelist in his own right) struggle to trim Smith’s work to a manageable length and shape; all those actors listed above are terrific, but largely wasted in brief and superfluous roles. Gary Oldman plays one of the few honest generals in Russia and Joel Kinnaman is the merciless killer who wants to replace Hardy and steal his lavish apartment (and maybe even his wife) but neither gets enough screen time to make much of an impression. A lot is made of the tensions between Leo and Raisa, but Hardy and Rapace don’t make a particularly compelling couple, and whatever friction exists between them gets conveniently forgotten by the third act, when they turn into a very dour, very sober, very Russian version of crime-solving married couple Nick and Nora Charles.

There are enough tangents and subplots, along with observations about life in the maddening bureaucracy of Soviet Russia, to fill a season of cable television — and maybe that’s where Child 44 should have wound up. On the big-screen, it proceeds too slowly and solemnly through its various mysteries and conflicts. For a film that features Bane and Commissioner Gordon teaming up to take down RoboCop, it’s awfully dull.

Leo’s big reward for all his work cutting through the Russian legal system’s endless red tape (heh, red tape) is a lecture from one of the film’s antagonists about how deep down they’re both the same man. This speech, which is designed to add the veneer of moral complexity to superficial characters and conflicts, has quickly become one of the most clichéd in all of modern Hollywood; the sinister, smiling madman whispering “We’re not so different, you and I,” to the flawed, haunted do-gooder. If these films were half as complex as they believe themselves to be, then the similarities between hero and villain would be obvious without an on-the-nose monologue. It and all of its many variations should be banned from cinema for at least five years.

The cast gives strong performances under the circumstances (i.e. while speaking through comically thick Russian accents), but even with that all-star cast and their solid effort, Child 44 is an unrelenting, 140-minute dirge. The entire film is neatly encapsulated in the sequence where Leo and Raisa sneak back into Moscow after her ex-communication in an attempt to find a vital clue to the killer’s identity. In a lengthy scene, they dodge the secret police, interrogate a witness, and go on the run once again. After 15 minutes of tepid suspense, Leo returns to see Gary Oldman’s character to discuss what he’s learned — and what he’s learned is absolutely nothing. “Moscow,” he groans, “was a complete wash.” Exactly.

Child 44 rating