Back in the U.S.S.R.: William Hurt Investigates Soviet-Style in Michael Apted’s Gorky Park

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Arkady Renko (William Hurt, right) tries to shed a light on the role of Irina Asanova (Joanna Pacula, left) in the brutal murder of three people.
Arkady Renko (William Hurt, right) tries to shed a light on the role of Irina Asanova (Joanna Pacula, left) in the brutal murder of three people.

For half of a century, the Soviet Union was the one big enemy of all Western countries as well as a welcome antagonist in a myriad of books, movies, and television shows. Portraits of the socialist empire were usually fairly one-sided and sketchy. It was the time of the Cold War, after all, and the ‘Free World’ of capitalism was seen as the polar opposite of the Russian-led ‘Evil Empire’ from the East. The crime novel Gorky Park by American writer Martin Cruz Smith was probably one of the first serious attempts to craft a story set in the Soviet Union. A fine thriller making its way all to the top of the New York Times bestsellers, it came as no surprise that the book was soon adapted to the big screen by Hollywood. In light of the more recent global events, it’s perhaps also not a bad idea to revisit the movie.

Moscow in the latter days of the Soviet era: Arkady Renko (William Hurt) is the son of a notorious WWII general and a promising investigator working for the Moscow militia. One day he is called to the popular ice-skating rink at Gorky Park, where three dead bodies have come to the surface. Each of them has been completely mutilated. They have all been shot in mouth and chest, as well as their fingerprints and faces totally removed, so that neither can be identified. The KGB leaves Renko high and dry when its agents refuse to take over the case, which, in turn, makes him both paranoid and anxious. Arkady wonders why they won’t investigate the matter when it should be their business to deal with.

Left alone with the case and without a clue, Renko commissions the renowned anthropologist Professor Andreev (Ian McDiarmid) with the arduous task to reconstruct the faces of the deceased. As he inches closer towards finding out the identities of the three victims, he stumbles upon several shady characters – apart from the KGB man Major Pribluda (Rikki Fulton) and his own superior, Chief Investigator Iamskoy (Ian Bannen). There are two Americans: William Kirwill (Brian Dennehy), a cop from New York looking for his disappeared brother James, and the sable entrepreneur Jack Osborne (Lee Marvin). On top of it, Arkady also has to ask himself how the beautiful but enigmatic Siberian dresser Irina Asanova (Joanna Pacula) is involved in all of it – and whether becoming involved with her is a risk worth taking.

Future James Bond and The Chronicles Of Narnia director Michael Apted and his crew must be lauded for doing a pretty good casting job on Gorky Park. As usual, Lee Marvin is the very embodiment of a villain. His Jack Osborne oozes both charm and venom, while Brian Dennehy’s William Kirwill remains a mysterious character throughout the movie. Can Arkady trust him or not? At the time Gorky Park came out, William Hurt was one of the hottest young leading men in Hollywood thanks to his role in Body Heat opposite Kathleen Turner. Here, we get a glimpse of why he would move on to Oscar fame with Kiss Of The Spider Woman only two years later. His version of Renko is a tormented soul, torn between his being bound by the truth, his role as a gear in the Soviet clockwork, and his love for Asanova.

This is, then, what makes the ending of Michael Apted’s Gorky Park all the more frustrating in comparison with the novel by Martin Cruz Smith. In the book, Arkady and Irina travel to New York to catch Osborne. When all is said and done, the investigator returns to Moscow – for two reasons. For starters, he has struck a deal that guarantees Asanova will be allowed to stay in the United States, without any interference from Soviet authorities. Arkady, however, also goes home for another reason. When in New York, he realizes that the ‘glorious’ West, the proverbial land of milk and honey, is just as corrupt as the all-seeing and all-knowing police state he comes from, or maybe even more so. With the finale of the film version set on rather neutral ground in Stockholm, movie audiences miss out on that important aspect of the novel.

That being said, the true star of Gorky Park, the motion picture, is Joanna Pacula. Making her stateside acting debut, the former Polish model and muse of Roman Polanski shines as the ravishing but inscrutable Siberian beauty Irina Asanova. She can twist every single male character around her little finger. Jack Osborne falls for her, although he, the ever-sinister bad guy, naturally manipulates her just as much, too. Arkady, on the other hand, is willing to risk his whole existence to save the attractive fallen woman – which is magnified umpteen times in the novel by the fact that Renko is stuck in a loveless marriage to a teacher who is true to party principles. With such a brilliant Hollywood debut under her belt, however, it’s fair to wonder why Joanna Pacula never really emerged as one of the dream factory’s leading ladies.

Ironically, her fate as an actress is, in a way, mirrored by that of both the Soviet Union and Orion Pictures, the studio that financed Gorky Park. The socialist empire finally collapsed in the second half of 1991, when high-ranked military officers attempted a (failed) coup d’état against Mikhail Gorbachev and his reform policies. After highly successful 1980s with movies such as The Terminator and Platoon that culminated with seven Academy Awards for Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, the studio was on the verge of bankruptcy for most of the 1990s. It eventually went out of business in 1998, shortly before the procumbent post-Soviet Russia managed to recover somewhat. Gorky Park remains a mildly successful thriller in the large Orion library that was picked up by MGM.

As a literary antihero, Arkady Renko has returned seven times so far since his first investigation, most recently in Tatiana last year. His other cases have taken him to more exotic spots, such as Cuba, the polar sea, Berlin and Munich shortly after the German reunification, and even the contaminated Chernobyl area. In his third mission, Red Square, he also experiences the aforementioned putsch against Gorbachev first-hand – and meets Irina, the love of his life, again. It’s a shame that neither of these novels has ever been adapted to the silver screen. Who knows what the studio heads have been thinking. Maybe Renko is considered to be too exotic a character for Hollywood blockbusters that would never become a Sherlock Holmes or James Bond-like icon. What’s left for us is to read the remaining novels by Martin Cruz Smith and wonder what could have been.