DVD Review: Kajínek

A look at Petr Jákl's true-crime story, now available on DVD

Directed by Petr Jákl. Starring Konstantin Lavronenko, Tatiana Vilhelmová, Boguslaw Linda, Michal Dlouhý, Werner Daehn, Vladimír Dlouhý, Václav Bárta, Deana Horváthová, Ken Duken, Hynek Cermak, Jana Krausová, Alice Bendová, Daniel Daden Svoboda. Written by Petr Jákl, Marek Dobeš.

Jiří Kajínek has been called the “most famous prisoner in the Czech Republic:” a career criminal who served multiple prison terms for various crimes including robbery, he´s currently serving a life sentence for a 1993 double homicide in Plzeň. Kajínek gained fame for a number of escape attempts, including a 2000 breakout from the maximum security Mírov Prison (he´s the only prisoner accredited with this feat), and subsequent media investigations and profiles have shed doubt on his murder conviction (pointing instead to corrupt local officials) and turned Kajínek into a kind of modern-day Robin Hood.

Armed with this fascinating true-crime story, Petr Jákl´s high-profile and highly popular film Kajínek stars Russian actor Konstantin Lavronenko (The Return) as the famous Czech prisoner, Tatiana Vilhelmová as his attorney Klára Pokorová (a fictional character based on lawyer Klára Slámová), and Polish actor Boguslaw Linda (who starred in Kieslowski´s Blind Chance 30 years ago) as Klára´s sometimes-lover and Kajínek´s former defender Doležal.

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There are two problems here: characters and events are much too loosely based on the facts, instead conforming to a highly contrived Screenwriting 101 formula, and Jákl and co-screenwriter Marek Dobeš have taken the focus of the titular character (he only appears in about a quarter of the film), following Vilhelmová´s far less interesting attorney instead.

As the film opens, Kajínek is serving his life sentence following a conviction for the murders of two lowlife criminals in Plzeň (a third has “conveniently” survived to testify). But there are holes in the case: missing evidence, unreliable witnesses, rumors of corruption. So attorney Pokorová, claiming that “every man deserves a fair trial in this country,” picks up where her lover Doležal left off (much to his chagrin) and petitions the court to re-open Kajínek´s case.

(Minor spoiler in below paragraphs)

Were Pokorová simply a freedom fighter, fine. But my biggest gripe with Kajínek unfolds about a third of the way through the film when we learn of her true motivation: her sister was raped and tortured by the criminals Kajínek is supposed to have killed, who then came after her. “If he didn´t kill them,” she says, “I would have pulled the trigger myself.”

This contrived motivation is at best illogical and at worst a major distraction: what does she want to accomplish here? If she truly believes Kajínek is innocent – as she seems to through most of the film – why bother with this career criminal? Let him rot; re-opening his case will only bring more attention to the real murderers, who are, in fact, her quasi-saviors. At one point in the film she comes to believe that Kajínek is in fact guilty – and quickly abandons him, when only now should she be helping him (based on the film’s convoluted character motivation), the man she now thinks is her savoir. It´s maddeningly senseless.

(End spoiler)

Kajínek is rough going while we watch Vilhelmová play Nancy Drew, but it picks up wonderfully for a brief time in the second half, as the attention shifts to Kajínek and his escape from Mírov Prison. Jákl – an actor and former stuntman making his directing debut here – cribs a lot of his style from Tony Scott, but the action scenes really work: Kajínek´s escape and subsequent on-the-lam scenes are intense and exciting, and easily the best thing about the picture.

Featured actors Lavronenko and Linda don´t speak Czech, of course, and seem to be reading their lines in their native languages, which have then been dubbed into Czech; the effect is something akin to an Italian spaghetti Western or giallo, and wholly out of place here, a distraction even for somebody reading the subtitles. Vladimír Dlouhý, creepily effective as a corrupt official, died during production; the film is dedicated to him. Brother Michal Dlouhý is also good as an ex-policeman who reveals key details about the double homicide.

Overall, Kajínek is passable TV-level entertainment, but it feels like a real missed opportunity; I´ve seen enough Hollywood mysteries to know that this is strictly by-the-numbers stuff, and was left wanting a fictional story that focused on the main character or a true-crime docudrama that faithfully depicted his case.

Image Quality: 3/10

For a major DVD of a recent theatrical release, I can safely say that the picture quality here is flat-out awful: soft, murky and extraordinarily grainy for the duration, there´s also frequent black crush (see screenshot #3), edge enhancement (#6), print defects, and digital artifacting that rendered the film glaringly poor on my 50” plasma. Kajínek is presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, the image letterboxed to 2.35:1.

The rumor mill is always buzzing about studios intentionally releasing inferior-looking DVDs to make their blu-ray counterparts seem all the better; while I reviewed the single-disc DVD edition (199 CZK list price), Kajínek is also available as a deluxe blu-ray set (699 CZK) that just might look a tad superior. I’m not impressed, especially after Sony’s beautiful transfer of Protektor. But do note: this is a passable presentation that only videophiles will take issue with.

Sound Quality: 7/10

5.1 Dolby Digital audio, on the other hand, sounds just fine: dialogue is crisp and clear, the soundtrack well-reproduced. It´s a front-heavy mix, with the rear speakers rarely employed.

Subtitles are offered in English and Czech.

Bonus Features: 0/10

The single-disc release is a barebones affair wrapped in a cheap cardboard case; about what you’d expect at a 199 CZK list price.

Also offered: at 499 CZK, a 3-disc DVD version that features a 2nd DVD full of bonus features (an interview with Kajínek, a censored scene, a making-of, video clips, trailers and a photogallery – presumably, the bonus content is not subtitled) and a soundtrack CD with music by Lucie Bíla and Kamila Střihavka; and at 699 CZK, a 3-disc blu-ray set with enhanced picture and sound that carries over identical extras.


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Kajínek is worth checking out, though I have plenty of reservations about the film. The single-disc DVD, however, cannot be recommended.

Screenshots (click to view full resolution):


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