In May 2017 Jiří Kajínek, a gangster, robber and hardman, was released from prison after serving 23 years of two life sentences, pardoned by President Zeman. During that time he became something of a folk hero in the Czech Republic. Sent down for the brutal killing of a businessman and his bodyguard, doubts persisted about his case, with over half of Czechs believing he was wrongfully accused.
Petr Jákl’s 2010 crime saga is a pulpy retelling of Kajínek’s struggles, including his infamous breakout from Mirov prison, known as the “Czech Alcatraz”. Former stuntman Jákl directs the film like a man setting himself alight and flinging himself down a flight of stairs. He’s used to making situations exciting, I guess, and has no qualms about cramming just about every thriller trope there is into his movie, trying to pump as much drama as he can into each scene. It’s a heady mix of prison breakout movie, legal drama and conspiracy thriller, and it’s got the lot – sadistic screws, transparently corrupt bad guys, tense escape scenes, and bursts of gory violence…
Kajínek opens with an exposition dump, explaining how crime boomed in the country after the Velvet Revolution. One of the key figures of this “wild east” period was Jiří Kajínek, who we allegedly see blowing away a carful of slimebags in a satisfyingly gory fashion. After about a dozen Czech films focusing on villagers bickering over their beer, it was a pleasant shock to see some brutal violence for a change!
It is a flashy, hyperactive opening, chopped up with plenty of edgy editing. It’s almost as if Jákl doesn’t quite trust the audience to take in all this information unless their eyeballs are also getting a good workout.
Thankfully, the movie settles down after that, once Kajínek (Konstantin Lavronenko) is sent down. Flash forward ten years, and his case is picked up – initially against Kajínek’s wishes – by ambitious lawyer Klara Pokorová (Tatiana Vilhelmová), who is now dating the gangster’s former defence attorney Doležal (Bogusław Linda). She thinks there were procedural errors in Kajínek’s trial and seeks to get the case reopened. Naturally, she’s discouraged at every step – no murder case has been reopened in Czech history and as far as the authorities see it, a bad guy went to prison for the murders, so who cares if it’s the wrong bad guy?
It turns out Pokorová has a very personal reason for wanting to free Kajínek. The further she digs, the more it becomes apparent that people on both sides of the law have vested interests in the case and deadly reasons for wanting Kajínek’s conviction to stick.
The film builds towards Kajínek’s daring escape from Mirov prison and his time on the run, by which point it has become a full-blown conspiracy thriller. Jákl over-directs the material throughout, and sometimes his melodramatic flourishes cause moments of unintentional hilarity. For the most part he pulls it off, almost in spite of his worst impulses – this is a good story and it would take a far worse director to screw it up.
The performances are adequately earnest, with Vilhelmová doing plucky resolve and Lavronenko doing brooding menace. Lavronenko bears a vague resemblance to the real-life Kajínek (albeit more handsome and hunky) but doesn’t really convince as a hardened criminal – he looks more like a slightly riled football manager than a tough nut. He gets better as the film goes on because he doesn’t really have much to do in the early parts.
Kajínek may be knuckleheaded and histrionic, but it somehow works. Petr Jákl has turned a gripping real-life tale into a trashy two-fisted thriller, ideal for a Saturday night with a few beers and a pizza.