Dir: Xavier Gens. US. 2007. 100mins.
In the annals of renowned cinematic assassins, Jason Bourne needn't fear any challenge to his legacy from Agent 47, the bald-headed killing machine of Hitman. Though stylish shot and occasionally exciting in its frenetically-edited action sequences, this adaptation of the popular video game can only go so far with its mindless violence until cardboard characters and a dull plot snuff out the momentum.
Opening in the US, Hitman enters the Thanksgiving frame as a hopeful counter-programmer to the family films and award-hungry dramas being offered elsewhere. But in targeting the male action crowd, this 20th Century Fox release will square off with last week's champ Beowulf, which puts Hitman at a distinct disadvantage since it lacks its competitor's sizable advertising budget and marquee names. Some video games, such as Tomb Raider and Resident Evil, have found success transitioning to the big screen, but the majority of these titles have had difficulty breaking $40m in the States.
The film will hit several international markets through the end of November, and possibly Hitman's gorgeous European settings and action-heavy narrative will prove appealing to foreign viewers. In another promising indicator of Hitman's overseas potential, all three Resident Evil films, that rare video-game franchise to show continued box-office vitality, have collected at least 60 percent of their earnings in foreign territories. Hitman doesn't have that trilogy's lithesome Milla Jovovich, though, so perhaps expectations should be muted. The same goes for ancillary performance, where the film will cater to hardcore action junkies but no one else.
Agent 47 (Timothy Olyphant) is an expert assassin who operates alone, receiving his orders via computer from his clandestine agency. But after he seemingly kills Russian head of state Belicoff (Ulrich Thomsen) with a sniper's bullet, the man miraculously later appears on television unharmed. Confused and suspecting a cover-up, 47 must outwit the secret service agents hot on his trail while trying to track down those who set him up to take the fall for Belicoff's staged death. Along the way, he befriends Belicoff's sexy girlfriend Nika (Olga Kurylenko), who wants nothing to do with the Russian leader and accompanies 47 on his quest.
With its sophisticated European settings, frenzied action, dense plotting, and political intrigue, Hitman (based on the Eidos Interactive video game) very much longs to be in the same league as Paul Greengrass's Bourne sequels, and for a short while the film succeeds at being a dumbed-down but effective knockoff, exuding a superficial cosmopolitan flair as its characters jump from one exotic locale to the next. Unfortunately, the dimwitted script from Skip Woods soon resorts to unconvincing verbal sparring between 47 and Nika (in the hopes of stirring some sexual tension) and a confusing plot in which 47 unravels the particulars of this cover-up.
Director Xavier Gens, who previously made the French torture-porn film Frontier(s), and his cinematographer Laurent Bares do fine work creating a stylized, striking world of chic hotels and elegant train stations, but whenever the characters have to talk to one another, Hitman feels not only geared toward young boys but also written by them as well. Indeed, the dialogue consists largely of tough-guy one-liners and failed attempts at macho humor. Adding to this juvenile attitude is the film's treatment of Nika who, as portrayed by model-actress Olga Kurylenko, is little more than a skimpy dress-shedding vixen who spends most of the film's running time saying provocative things in the hopes of turning on the steely 47.
Best known for his role on HBO's Deadwood, Olyphant has some decent moments playing the titular assassin, a man who shows no emotion and approaches his murderous jobs with a priest-like seriousness, taking little pleasure in his sterling killing skills. Olyphant plays the character without overdoing its comic-book exaggerations, lending a graceful, cerebral bent to this assassin. But when Olyphant is required to reveal 47's regret for the blood he's shed, the film anxiously hurries past the emotions so as not to get in the way of the next action sequence. The cautious love story between 47 and Nika is equally clumsy, as if the filmmakers decided Hitman needed something more than just fight scenes but couldn't quite figure out how to make it work.
Speaking of the fight scenes, several of them exhibit such a giddy sense of overkill that the desired response seems to be a mixture of awe and chuckles. This vaguely tongue-in-cheek tone comes through most clearly in a brazen battle in a train station that involves a plethora of guns, swords, fists, and grunts. Obviously, moviegoers thirsty for a video-game adaptation aren't sticklers for believability, and Gens gleefully provides some escapist pleasure with his whacked-out action scenes, displaying a tonal kinship to countryman Luc Besson. But now that Gens has a grasp on fight choreography, he might want to shift his attention to human beings.
20th Century Fox (US)
Pierre-Ange Le Pogam
Henry Ian Cusick