Kill List (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring), ex-soldiers, were experiencing financial difficulty because Jay hadn’t worked in months due to his back. After a dinner party turned into a verbal battlefield between the husband and wife, Gal (Michael Smiley) informed Jay about a contract job that paid a solid sum. Jay, desperate to keep his household together, accepted. Fiona (Emma Fryer), meanwhile, talked to Shel about her son (Harry Simpson) and her prospect about having kids. “Kill List,” written by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, was a fine fusion of thriller and horror where many details were purposefully vague. As questions plagued our minds, the three title cards, “The Priest,” “The Librarian,” and “The M.P.,” that took over the screen were the only certainty, signifying the three people that Jay and Gal were assigned to kill in which the reasons were unknown to them. But they didn’t need to; what was important was the money. At times, the picture’s abstruse nature worked for itself. For example, one of the persons they had to kill had a prodigiously negative impact on Jay’s psychology. Instead of being a professional and going for the easy and clean kill, he lost his temper and went on a violent, gory rampage. Even Gal, seemingly no stranger to murder-for-profit, had to look away. Though we didn’t know exactly what Jay saw in the videotape that pushed him over the edge (although we were able to hear sounds), it probably had something to do with what happened back then that traumatized him as a soldier. At its best, the mystery piqued my curiosity. It forced me to look closer on how the characters reacted to dialogue and the things they experienced through sight and sound. However, at times, its secrecy was frustrating. As Jay descended into madness, which conflicted with his motivation to be a good husband and father, not enough of our questions were answered. What did the client (Struan Rodger) have against the three men? What was so special about Jay and his family that they had to go through dark twists in the latter quarter of the film? We deserved to be informed because we put time into watching the story unfold. By not answering some of our key questions, the movie felt shallow. Eventually, I got the impression that it had a great idea of making a hybrid of two genres but the writers didn’t quite know how or they were too lazy to piece information together. Ultimately, the project felt like a gimmick rather an a compelling story worth sitting through and thinking about. Directed by Ben Wheatley, “Kill List” benefited greatly from good performances. I enjoyed the contrast between the ugliness of marriage when things were tough and the macho friendship between Jay and Gal even when things were tough. Since those two aspects felt real, I cared when they were challenged. If only I was able to say the same about the nightmarish spiral down the rabbit hole.
The American (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jack (George Clooney), an assassin whom his superior (Johan Leysen) considered to be losing his edge, took refuge in an Italian village after his last job had gone horribly awry. When Jack wasn’t gathering materials to create a weapon for a fellow contract killer (Thekla Reuten), he spent his time with a prostitute (Violante Placido) who wanted to get out of the countryside and a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who sensed that Jack had something to hide. “The American,” directed by Anton Corbijn, was an atypical thriller about a hitman dealing with the prospect that his career was coming to an end. It was a great exercise in tone and mood. While I admit that I do agree, to an extent, with audiences’ critiques involving the pace being slow, I relished every second because once an action sequence was thrown on our laps, it was like we were paralyzed and there was nothing we could do but to stare at a bomb about to explode in under five seconds. I enjoyed the picture because it was surprisingly character-driven. Clooney did a wonderful job in balancing a character who wanted redemption because he suspected that perhaps the small village was his final destination. He wondered how lower-level assassins were able to find him even though he was convinced that he covered his tracks well. Did one of the people who he had a conversation with simply a disguise and he failed to noticed it? Paranoia started to seep through his mind. When he slept and heard a creak, grabbing a gun was an automatic response. He was like a machine or a weapon he so desperately wanted to perfect. Maybe he really was starting to lose it. On the other hand, even though deep inside he knew he wouldn’t be able to lead a normal life, he wanted to explore the possibility of settling down with a woman. She was warm, free-spirited, easy to form a smile–a complete opposite of himself; he was cunning, calculating, suspicious. The only time they seemed to be on the same page was when they shared a bed. But even then he had to pay for her services. As one scene switched tone from Jack’s personal to professional battles, Clooney would go from a nondescript man in a café to a predator whose one and only purpose was to catch his prey. In Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity,” my favorite scene was the silent duel between Matt Damon and Clive Owen in the yellow fields. All we could hear were rapid footsteps, bullets flying, our protagonist gasping for air, and the birds. “The American” captured that brilliance for the majority of its running time. However, it certainly isn’t for those without patience or audiences who are expecting adrenaline-fueled entertainment. I’m no assassin, but I think if they were to lead some sort of a life, it wouldn’t be far from Jack’s lifestyle.
★ / ★★★★
An uptight woman (Katherine Heigl) who recently got out of a relationship decided to go on vacation with her parents (Catherine O’Hara, Tom Selleck) in Nice, France and luckily met her future husband (Ashton Kutcher). He seemed to have it all: he’s charming, has a sense of humor, a great body and he genuinely wanted her despite her geekiness and flaws. He just happened to be a contract killer who worked for the government. I really wanted to like “Killers,” directed by Robert Luketic, because I have a penchant for stories involving spies and sleeper agents. Unfortunately, the picture needed to trim a lot of fat, especially the very unfunny first thirty minutes. It had a chance to establish the characters before diving into the action scenes but the dialogue was so flat, so empty, and so one-dimensional. I found that our conversations in real life were more interesting to listen to than the two characters having a dinner date by the sea. Their conversations didn’t pull me into their relationship because there were far too many giggly, awkward moments instead of two people sharing a real connection. I think this would have been far more effective if the first half was a romantic comedy and second half was a predominantly serious but occassionally funny thriller. The elements were certainly there: the close-knit suburban community which reminded me of “Desperate Housewives” with perfect picket fences and all, the quirky and sometimes annoying neighbors, the parents who were too involved with their daughter’s marriage, and the husband harboring a secret that he couldn’t hide forever. I thought it had a very difficult time juggling comedy and action so it managed to excel at neither of them. As for the sleeper agents, like the lead characters, they would have had more impact in the story if we got to know them a little bit. The battle scenes would have been more interesting if each of them had a specialty and a different style of assassination. Because let’s face it: gunning someone down with fragments of glass flying everywhere can get old pretty quickly. “Killers” desperately needed a lot of substance and a lot of edge in order to be a killer film. Heigl and Kutcher were easy on the eyes but that was about it. Be warned: there is a vast difference between the trailer and the movie–like having a crush on someone from afar because of their looks but when you really try to get to know them, it’s very disappointing because they turn out to be quite empty. Rewatch “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” instead because “Killers” was just no fun.
Léon: The Professional (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jean Reno, a reclusive assassin whose best friend is a plant, takes twelve-year-old Natalie Portman under his wing after her family was killed by police officers led by Gary Oldman. Written and directed by Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “La Femme Nikita”), I enjoyed “Léon” because it was more about the humanity of a contract killer instead of his many interesting ways of killing. Even though the action sequences could be found more toward the beginning and the end of the picture, I still found Reno and Portman’s relationship to be quite endearing. Undoubtedly, there were times when I found the director would cross the line between father-figure/daughter relationship and older man/younger girl relationship. Those scenes made me uncomfortable but perhaps it was because this was Besson’s first full English-language movie. In my opinion, European films have a more sensual feel compared to American movies. Still, I was able to overlook such flaws because I found the story to be interesting even if it needed to have more depth. Another quality I liked about this film was that there really was no “good” character. Pretty much everyone had done something shameful in their lives. And the main character was aware of this so he locks himself up in his room and only comes out whenever he has an assignment. Oldman’s character was the kind of guy that you love to hate because he has no redeeming quality. Nevertheless, I thought he was very interesting to watch because of his quirky mannerisms and sinister aura. I kind of expected an intense duel between him and the protagonist so I was somewhat disappointed with the ending. For such a sadistic man, I thought the bad guy would suffer more in the hands of another killer and get the delicious irony he deserved. If one is looking for action with picture with a heart, I’m giving “Léon” a pretty solid recommendation despite its sometimes glaring flaws.