Come back John Woo – all it forgiven. Sure, Windtalkers was a waste of time, and anything for a Paycheck didn’t demand you lower your standards to brash Benifer levels. No, the adrenaline rushed crime thriller needs you – and with the newly released Hitman ready to louse up theaters worldwide – it’s not a moment too soon. All the lessons you taught us about re-imagined action, about giving the standard fire fight a sly, slow motion significance, have been ignored in favor of big guns, big bangs, and big disappointment. Only you could make this feeble foreign intrigue work, and with the sloppy script and underwhelming cast, it would be a Herculean task. You weren’t sitting in the director’s chair, unfortunately. As a result, the so-called shoot ‘em up turns into a snoozefest.
Born into a weird world of purposefully programmed orphans, Number 47 was raised to be the ultimate lethal weapon. He’s a hired assassin, working for the mysterious ‘Organization’. When a political hit goes array, our killer faces a quandary. Set up by someone and about to take the fall, he needs to find out who framed him – and make sure no one will benefit from it. All roads lead to the initial target (a Russian leader named Belicoff), his drug dealing brother Udre, and a prostitute/potential witness named Nika. After saving the girl from a parallel plot, 47 heads off to find the source of his betrayal. Turns out, the target in question may not be dead after all, and the international intelligence community may be playing a part in all of this. And then there is the Interpol agent named Mike Whittier who has been chasing 47 for three years. All he needs is one lucky break, and he can put this cruel killer away for life.
Hitman overstays its welcome from the moment the ammunition starts flying, and never finds a satisfying way of winning us back. It’s dry and dour, so full of itself that you’d swear it was a college athlete. In a genre not known for its subtlety, cinematic tact, innovation (unless you’re John Woo), or lack of contrivance, this vacant videogame adaptation is a barely passable poster child. It’s the kind of effort that slinks when it should soar, that substitutes brooding for that all important bullet ballet. If the ability to glower successfully was a true underworld asset, the pretentiously named Number 47 would be Tony Soprano. Even worse, a movie named Hitman should revel in its gory, gratuitous killings. It’s the main purpose for inviting an audience. Sadly, screenwriter Skip Woods and director Xavier Gens don’t comprehend the fun in firepower. Instead, they keep pushing the film into political intrigue mode – and in these days of uncertain international ideology, a From Russia with Love storyline feels so Tom Clancy.
With his hairless head, slight physique, and back of the neck barcode tattoo, 47 is a manufactured psycho, a pre-credits sequence providing the only insight into how and why he became the way he is. This material, the most unique and different element Hitman has to offer, is underplayed to the point that we forget it after a few minutes. Even when the character discusses his make-up later on, it takes a second for our brains to recall said reality. Why Woods and Gens would avoid such origin material for more mindless intelligence agency protocol is just one of this film’s failings. In order to make 47 something more than an assassinating automaton, we need to see how he suffered, to witness the inner demons he is constantly dealing with. Instead, the storyline keeps him distant, and therefore dull. Even intriguing clues (a church key, a bag of deadly tricks) become nothing more than throwaway moments.
Of course, if lead Timothy Olyphant were a more present actor, we’d have little to worry about. Hitman was originally planned as a vehicle for Vin Diesel, and say what you want about the limited range lunkhead, but when it comes to action bravado, that cueball has it in spades. Olyphant, on the other hand, is like a kid playing cops and incredibly skilled hired gun. During a mandatory sequence of isolated inner turmoil (expressed best by a steamy shower) we see he has the physique for the job. But instead of the charisma of Chow-Yun Fat circa The Killer, we get someone who looks surprisingly like a refugee from a Euro-trash version of Extreme Makeover, Home Edition. Wisely, Woods gives the character very little dialogue. Instead, 47 is fleshed out by his meticulous attention to death-delivering detail. He is so many steps ahead of his potential captors that we never once fear for his safety – not that we care, actually.
Indeed, the biggest problem with Hitman is its lack of any and all emotional pull. Since 47 is so proficient, there is no suspense. He’s so asexual that when slinky Soviet sexpot Nika (a wannabe Asia Argento named Olga Kurylenko) straddles him like a stripper, his only response is to drug her and leave. When he’s joking, it barely registers. He’s never outright angry or totally deep in despair. No, 47 is exactly like everything else in Hitman – he’s moderated to the point of meaninglessness. The story, the tone, the action sequences, the plodding plot twists all reflect Gens desire to dilute anything that could conceivably enliven the proceedings. In a film centering around slaughter and the skillful application of same, we expect lifelessness…just not from anything other than the corpses. And yet everything we see and anything we experience is filtered through a lumbering lack of energy.
Still, the fanboys should be happy. Though nothing here can match the vicarious thrill of envisioning you finger on the trigger of a joystick jerryrigged weapon, game devotees will see a lot of their console fave here. And since they are fully ensconced in all aspects of the Hitman mythos, a lack of onscreen depth or explanation won’t really matter. All they require is the recognizable iconography - the tribal symbol logo of the enigmatic “Organization”, the Reservoir Dog style black ensemble, the double barreled defiance of two gleaming guns – and all is well in the PlayStation universe. Filmgoers, on the other hand, don’t have the benefit of endless hours investigating the various nuances of their interactive experience. Instead, they need their information and intrigue plastered across the screen. Sadly, not even blood gets sprayed across the feeble framework provided. Hitman had some minor potential. Too bad the filmmakers decided to temper that as well.