Reviews

Mr. Smith and Mrs. Housewife Are 'Killers'

It's only half the movie Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie made five years ago, but that may be good enough for some fans of Killers.


Killers

Director: Robert Luketic
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, Tom Selleck, Catherine O’Hara
Length: 100 minutes
Studio: Katalyst Films, Lionsgate
Year: 2010
Distributor: Lionsgate
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violent action, sexual material, and language
Release Date: 2010-09-07
Website

When watching the trailer or TV spots for Killers it’s hard not to notice its similarities to Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Sure, Katherine Heigl’s character isn’t a spy, but all the other markings are there. Exotic locale? Check. Bickering couple? Check. Lots of gunplay? Check.

I don’t think anyone would make the leap comparing Ashton Kutcher to Brad Pitt and Heigl to Angelina Jolie and therein lies the main problem with what could have been a fun little knock-off: everything about Killers is second choice.

Obviously, the actors aren’t A-listers. Heigl may be an up-and-comer, but she’s certainly not as appealing (in any form) as the Oscar-nominated Jolie. Though she complains about her characters’ flaws more than any actress I know of, she continues to take the roles that require a lot of girlish screams and constant nagging. The streak continues with Killers.

We first meet Jen starting her vacation with parents Mr. and Mrs. Kornfeldt (the dream pairing of Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara), and she couldn’t be more upset. Her nerdy boyfriend just dumped her and now she has to take a trip with Ma and Pa. Oh, she’s going to France. Nice, France, presumably for free. I can only imagine what sort of life she’s lead thus far to be complaining about such a vacation.

Now, I don’t want to cast an unfairly harsh light on what is simply meant to be an in-one-ear-and-out-the-other action comedy, but it’s this sort of lazy introduction that keeps Killers from fully accomplishing this lowly goal. I understand the need to give the protagonist some problems, just not these. Jen is made even more negatively stereotypical because her parents are so clearly awesome.

O’Hara’s first line has her ordering three drinks for herself while Selleck plays it comically straight by refusing his drink because of a need to stay “alert and focused” on a plane ride. Why wouldn’t Jen embrace her good luck and enjoy the time with her funny folks?

Our introduction to Kutcher’s Spencer is equally sloppy, but less repugnant. We immediately learn of his profession as a professional killer, a fact that would have been much more amusing if hidden for the first 20 minutes or so. What’s his problem? Well, since his life requires him to fly solo and keep secrets he obviously must crave domesticity. While asking the 32-year-old hard-partying Kutcher to portray the desired comforts of a 40-50 year old is an issue easy enough to ignore, the clichéd caricature he inhabits is tougher to swallow. He’s just a spy who wants a permanent home. Based on the way he meets and inexplicably falls for Jen, he’s so desperate for normalcy he’ll settle down with any ordinary Jane who’s willing.

The meet-cute scene is so cluttered with awkward moments it’s amazing the date even ended, let alone leads to dates 2-200. Jen, again embarrassed to be seen with her parents, tells Spencer her dad is a Russian pervert who got too grabby on the plane just so the couple can avoid him for the night. Spencer, who is at first quite charming, soon loses his debonair attitude and begins rambling like a buffoon about Jen’s dress, boobs, and body. After being accosted by a random local on the dance floor, Jen proceeds to get so drunk she passes out right before Spencer tells her he’s a paid assassin. Still, Spencer remains enamored with Jen, a concept only accounted for by her good looks.

If director Robert Luketic would have explored the idea of an awkward spy and his even more awkward date, perhaps the first third of Killers would have worked. After all, not every spy can be as enthralling as James Bond. An expert hired gun who can disassemble and reassemble his sidearm blindfolded but can’t say “Hi” to a woman without shooting himself in the leg would have been an originally engaging idea even if it didn’t take over the movie. Instead, the couple’s klutziness is played for straight laughs and only a handful are earned.

Another overlooked opportunity comes in Spencer’s repeated moral quandaries. After he meets Jen for the first time, the young man offs his last target and decides he wants out of the game. Before exiting Spencer asks his coordinator if he knows why each mark was targeted in the first place, but his boss explains away his worries by reassuring him they must be bad guys if the American government wants them dead. This doesn’t sit well with our hero and his distrust becomes a theme of Killers.

The final twist brings it to the forefront when Spencer’s blind trust (forced or otherwise) comes back to bite him. Or does it? Luketic never addresses any of the question marks his character brings up, instead choosing to leave us concernedly clueless. Perhaps he didn’t have the time among all the “clever” quips and “boisterous” bickering.

Nevertheless, the film jumps forward in time from the couple’s meeting to the pre-engagement period to three years into their marriage when Spencer’s past finally catches up with him. It was refreshing to see time move without definitive markings seemingly for only the dumbest members of the audience, but the shifts exclude the parents far too much. What’s worse is the almost complete exclusion of Mr. and Mrs. Kornfeldt from the film’s final half. Luketic must have thought we wouldn’t miss them with so much action going on, but their mature presence would have helped anchor the immaturity of our leads even with bullets flying overhead.

Despite the above-mentioned flaws and missed opportunities, Killers is never as bad as it should be. Kutcher and Heigl don’t reach the unadulterated entertainment level Pitt and Jolie captured in 2005, but each of them has their moments (Heigl less than Kutcher).

As Heigl comments in the 11-minute making-of documentary found on the DVD, neither of the actors are hard on the eyes, thus covering the most demanding aspect of each role. Their good looks may not be enough to warrant watching the picture (or the brief gag reel and rudimentary deleted scenes included on the disc), but couple them with O’Hara’s humor and Selleck’s charm and Killers could have been much less lively.

4

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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