Milan Ondrík in Shadowplay (Photos: Hangar Films)

By Matt Brunson

★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Peter Bebjak
STARS Milan Ondrík, Hynek Čermak

Guilt with a capital G is the overriding emotion that saturates every frame of Shadowplay, a Czech-Slovak drama that starts off strong before stumbling toward the finish.

Milan Ondrík stars as Jan Kavka, an EMT whose blowout argument with his wife Eva (Dominika Morávková) results in him moving out of their home and her taking a nocturnal jog in an effort to calm down. But her route leads her next to a gas station where hardened thug Robert Stránský (Jan Jankovský) is brutally beating the attendant in a robbery attempt. Spotting Eva, Stránský chases her through the streets as she frantically keeps calling Jan, who’s still fuming and thus not answering his phone. Stránský deliberately runs over Eva with his van, leading to her death and his arrest.

Racked with guilt for not picking up, Jan predictably drowns his sorrows in booze before deciding to resume his physical regimen at the boxing club owned by his friend Michal (Hynek Čermak). All the while, he can only hope that justice will be carried out and Stránský will receive proper punishment — this wish is shared by Pavel Dvořák (Vladimír Javorský), a detective who feels a kinship with Jan since the latter attempted to save his daughter’s life following an accident the previous year. Unfortunately, Stránský is a drug informant, meaning his handling officer (Kristýna Frejová) will be orchestrating his release at any moment. This in turn forces Jan to decide if he’ll take the law into his own hands.

Shadowplay - Still 4
Leona Skleničková (background) and Milan Ondrík in Shadowplay

For the first hour-plus, director Peter Bebjak and writer Vendula Bradáčová (working from an idea by the film’s producer and her husband, Jan Bradáč) rarely make any missteps. The opening chase between Stránský and Eva is well choreographed and thus provides the necessary tension, and Jan’s subsequent remorse is handled believably. There’s some nice rapport between Jan and the detective as well as between Jan and his boxing buddy, and Stránský’s immunity adds a complex wrinkle to the tale.

It’s only during the final stretch that the film goes astray. The business of Jan trying to get into jail before Stránský gets out grows tedious and doesn’t make much sense anyway (why wouldn’t Jan just go after him after he’s released?), and the subplot involving Stránský’s immunity ultimately feels underdeveloped.

Yet the biggest flaw of the film rests in the character of Greta (Leona Skleničková), who is introduced as some largely mute orphan (I initially believed she would prove to be psychotic), helps out Michal in exchange for free boxing sessions, and absurdly becomes a romantic interest for Jan. Greta doesn’t evolve but instead turns into a sitcom character, and her expanded presence in the second half only distracts from the meatier material.

On balance, there’s enough to recommend Shadowplay, as the performances are top-notch and the themes of loss, grief, and guilt are ably handled. But Greta remains a sticking point. Forget Million Dollar Baby; this one’s more like Twenty Dollar Teen.

(Shadowplay debuted in a handful of Central European countries last year and is scheduled to expand in 2023.)

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