Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 42 min.
Release Date: 2023 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Peter Bebjak Actors: Milan Ondrik, Hynek Cermak, Leona Sklenickova, Jan Jankovsky, Vladimir Javorsky, Dominika Zelenikova
rtistic yet disorienting editing introduces a handful of people with disparate lives, before Jan Kavka (Milan Ondrik) takes a call from his wife, Eva (Dominika Zelenikova), only to have an argument that prompts him to grab some things and move out of their apartment to go stay in a hotel. One of the characters shown at the start turns out to be dog-walking neighbor Michal Uter (Hynek Cermak), a longtime friend who runs a boxing gym and who happens to cross paths with Jan; the other faces aren’t as immediately linked. After Eva smashes her phone during the frustrating talk with her husband, she’s unable to use it when she sees a man assaulting a woman at a convenience store – an incident that turns even uglier when the assailant notices the unintended witness and determines to dispose of her.
The music is catchy (primarily reusing a jazzy little number over and over again, adding percussion and bass at ill-fitting moments), the cinematography is crisp, and the acting is decent; the initial phases of “Shadowplay” demonstrate a practiced aptitude for moviemaking. It’s not particularly unique or absorbing, but the premise ushers in moderate intrigue. An unexpected twist, however, aims to transform the scenario into something far more engaging: a sudden car accident complicates the truth behind the unexplained attack, pushing Jan to believe that he’s responsible for his wife’s untimely demise. It’s here that those additional roles from before begin to reveal their involvements, each connecting to the main character or to his associates, as his existence spirals downward thanks to mourning with abundant alcohol.
The plot soon transitions into a bit of a mystery, as Major Pavel Dvorak (Vladimir Javorsky), the detective assigned to Eva’s case, discovers that another officer, Captain Helena Mudrova (Kristyna Frejova), is interfering with his investigation. Problematically, the police procedural elements don’t inspire much tension or unusual revelations, while Jan’s desire to get to the bottom of his wife’s death, employing questionable methods, fails to generate the empathy or righteousness generally needed for a proper hero, especially when criminals and cops are involved. “I need closure.”
As it turns out, “Shadowplay” is often more concerned with analyzing characters and their motivations and reactions than it is in crafting a thriller. This is commendable for the sake of performances and character-building, but it works against pacing and excitement and drawing audiences in. It’s a tactic that is curiously at odds with many sequences, which are clearly arranged to craft suspense or shock as the various players weave in and out of Jan’s quest for answers and his shifting allegiance to conventional justice. His profession as a medical technician (and ambulance driver) is comparably underused, while his skills as a boxer don’t come in handy when anticipated. Plus, his behaviors are routinely unconvincing; his grieving process doesn’t feel as if it would authentically steer toward violence (nodding to “Death Wish” but without the right combination of naïveté and drive). It’s all quite understated, as if to reflect realism; unfortunately, that’s not original or effective here in this escalating series of transgressions and coincidences.
In addition, there’s an orphan girl, Greta (Leona Sklenickova), who receives free lessons at the gym and wishes to ingratiate herself into the lives of Michal and Jan, yet her entanglement is dodgy at best (she’s meant to be pitiable, comedic, and romantic at intermittent turns). Despite the start of the picture only revealing a small number of personas, it’s disappointing to learn that a couple of them are almost entirely unnecessary; there’s just not enough for them to do to appear indispensable. Ultimately, the proportions of this project are all off; attention is paid to the wrong people at the wrong times, developing subplots that are just too tangential to be poignant, and wasting valuable minutes on trivial details. It’s doubly dissatisfying when the conclusion winds up exactly where viewers thought it would – in both location and confrontation. There’s a mild surprise at the finish, but it’s not enough to allow “Shadowplay” to stand out or to be particularly memorable. “All life is a boxing ring.”
– Mike Massie