Color, 1983, 128m.
Directed by Michael Apted
Starring William Hurt, Lee Marvin, Brian Dennehy, Ian Bannen, Joanna Pacula
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Time has been extremely kind to this much-publicized but divisive thriller, which opened in the winter of 1983 among a slate of violent fare like Scarface and Sudden Impact. Based on a very popular 1981 thriller by Martin Cruz Smith (author of Nightwing), the film remains the only big screen case for Arkady Renko, who appeared in seven subsequent books charting the transformation of the Soviet Union during and after the Cold War. Cast in the role was William Hurt in only his fifth big-screen role, following acclaimed turns in films like Body Heat, Altered States, and The Big Chill. His clipped, withdrawn performance (complete with an odd, semi-British accent) wasn't what most critics expected at the time, but he actually turns in solid work in an ensemble cast that looks quite remarkable today. The film itself earned a respectful reception from critics but didn't set the box office on fire, remaining a sort of cult thriller for adults in a time dominated by more sensational fare.
The corpses of three ice skaters are discovered in the titular park with their faces and fingerprints completely removed almost to the bone, preventing easy identification of the victims. Police officer Arkady is assigned to the case and enlists the latest breakthroughs in pathology to reconstruct the missing faces, but something seems awry when higher ups refuse to help him make any progress. The trail leads him to collaborating with an American detective, Kirwill (Dennehy), as well as a woman who turns out to have been friends with the deceased, Irina (Pacula), the companion of a wealthy American sable trader, Jack Osborne (Marvin). The trail soon leads to more cover ups, violence, and betrayal, exposing a hidden, greedy plot with ties to the KGB itself.
At the time of its release, Gorky Park seemed an odd choice for director Michael Apted, best known for his documentaries and TV work as well as the acclaimed Coal Miner's Daughter. He actually turned out to be a savvy choice as he offers a snapshot of U.S.S.R. life at the time that feels even more fascinating and alien now than in the '80s, a moment in time long gone and rarely seen elsewhere on American screens. Of course, the production would never have been allowed to shoot in the actual country which means Helsinki had to do a reasonable job of doubling for the actual locations. In an equally unorthodox move, script duties were handed to Dennis Potter, the brilliant force behind such British TV productions as Pennies from Heaven and Brimstone and Treacle (with The Singing Detective to come three years later). His feature film works are few and far between, and it's fascinating to see how he winds the various narrative threads of the book into a cinematic whole.
On the casting side, much ado was made at the time about the icy and striking Pacula, but it's really Brian Dennehy who takes top acting honors here with a charismatic turn far removed from his memorable villain in the previous year's First Blood. It's no wonder this film played a large part in making him one of the busiest, most reliable character actors for the rest of the decade. The film was also a big break for composer James Horner, who had just transitioned from low-budget horror films to studio glory the previous year with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This would turn out to be perhaps the most remarkable year in his entire career as his nerve-jangling, memorable electronic work here was the capper on a run that also included Krull, Brainstorm, The Dresser, and Uncommon Valor.
Theatrically released by Orion Pictures, Gorky Park became a TV staple for years with its open matte transfer adapting well to the small screen. An MGM DVD in the early '00s did a solid job of retaining the original 1.85:1 framing of the theatrical presentation, but the 2014 Blu-ray (with an upgraded DVD release as well) from Kino Lorber bests it with a crisp but accurately dark, atmospheric HD transfer prepared by MGM. It's never been the most vivid or colorful film but the presentation shines where it counts, with the more problematic night scenes now looking better than ever before. The DTS-HD MA mono audio also benefits from the higher resolution with a punchier presentation of the score as well as some very effective gunshot effects during the climax. Extras include the theatrical trailer and a 16-minute featurette with Apted talking about the location and accent issues of the production, the casting and script process, and the challenges of presenting a Russian hero to Western audiences.