‘Wild Target’: Moral Ambiguity Without Messy Drool

As vampires and werewolves prowl and growl their way into viewers’ hearts and minds, Wild Target director Jonathan Lynn presents a less supernatural but no less appealing anti-hero in Victor Maynard. Think of it as moral ambiguity without all that messy drool.

Wild Target enjoyed a modest cinematic run in 2010. It was released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK last October and in North America in February 2011.

Maynard (Bill Nighy) is a hit man of legendary prowess whose face is unknown, but whose exploits are well documented. As his 55th birthday approaches, Maynard’s mother (Eileen Atkins) — who helped train him in his profession — suggests he may be losing his edge; she also warns that he may drive the family business into extinction given his chronic bachelorhood and inability to produce an heir.

Maynard is sent to assassinate Rose (Emily Blunt), a con artist who’s in over her head against big-time art thieves. To his bemusement, Maynard finds himself fascinated by Rose and ambivalent about murdering her. An odd turn of events lumps Maynard and Rose together with Tony (Rupert Grint), a naïve street kid who washes cars to scrape together weed money. Soon the unlikely trio are all on the run from an angry gangster (Rupert Everett) bent on revenge and a maniacal, sadistic hitman (Martin Freeman) who’s all too eager to usurp Maynard as the industry leader.

By unearthing and adapting Pierre Salvadori’s 1993 French release Cible Émouvante, screenwriter Lucinda Coxon has shaped a story that speaks directly to 21st-century audiences. Today’s viewers, observes the Los Angeles Times‘ Christy Grosz, “are looking for something they recognize and a point of view that’s decidedly less sheltered than they’ve sought in the past.” Wild Target provides exactly that through its strongest asset: its characters.

Although he’s a hit man, audiences can relate to Bill Nighy’s Victor Maynard because of the challenges he faces: a job he’s stuck in for better or worse, an economic quandary he’s inherited, an aging mother who requires his attention and care, a desire for love and stability at home and the overshadowing threat of losing his job to a younger and more ruthless competitor.

Viewers are also let in on Maynard’s deeper aspirations, intimated by his attempts to learn French, his appreciation of fine food and wine and his one-sided pantomime of a conversation. Alone in his mansion, he’s materially wealthy but otherwise wanting.

Blunt’s Rose presents a similar bundle of contradictions; as a con artist and incorrigible thief, she’s no angel. But unlike Maynard, she’s no killer. Also in contrast to Maynard, Rose enjoys the company of other people — but she tends to use and discard them. Both she and Maynard are questing for something more substantial.

Director Jonathan Lynn’s artful use of color helps further define these characters’ struggles. Maynard inhabits a moral grey area; as such, he’s dressed in a dowdy grey suit and lives in a darkly furnished, dimly lit space. The first time we meet Rose, she’s blissfully riding her bicycle through rain while sporting a bright red coat.

As a supporting character, Grint’s Tony is naturally not as strong a screen presence as his leading role of Ben Marshall in 2006’s Driving Lessons. That said, Grint’s full-hearted and approachable embodiment of Tony quickly establishes the character’s affability and his appeal to the staid and distant Victor Maynard. Tony is a fatherless child; Maynard is a childless father.

Another standout supporting performance is Freeman’s, who masks his character’s ghoulish psyche with a saccharine veneer that oozes with cynicism.

Although the premise of Wild Target involves the inherently violent work of hit men, the violence is virtually bloodless and generally off camera. The film’s most graphic scene of violence actually comes during a comedic set-piece in which Grint’s character non-lethally defends himself against a hapless henchman intent on drowning Grint in his bath. Upping Wild Target‘s action ante are car chases with plenty of squealing tires, hairpin turns and slapstick near-misses with passersby.

There are aspects of Wild Target that don’t work as well. In the portion of the film where the action takes place in London, the shots go beyond establishing the locale and come to resemble a Visit Britain reel, where St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge or the Swiss Re Gherkin are always in view. The question about Maynard’s sexual orientation feels tacked on; when it resurfaces later in the story, it distracts from Maynard’s more motivated internal conflict over his emerging feelings of true affection. And while Freeman’s performance is praiseworthy, his character’s unrepentant misdeeds may push the limit for some.

Given its subject matter, Wild Target is dark but ultimately it’s a comedy; as a genre film, it delivers. Nighy’s convincingly gentle transformation presents a man at midlife who makes the best with what he’s given. Blunt and Grint’s characters embrace their lives’ unexpected possibilities. And while it may seem absurd for viewers to sympathize with a hit man and his ilk, that’s obviously not the point of Wild Target. It’s the characters’ search for redemption and happiness — despite their imperfections — that hits home.

RATING 7 / 10