2007-11-21 (General release)

“I’d thank you if I wasn’t so mad at you.” Poor Nika (Olga Kurylenko), so confused by the titular hero of Hitman, deemed “47” (Timothy Olyphant) by the bureaucrats and researchers who “raised” him. Every time she turns around, the barely dressed and heavily made-up punky prostitute is under assault by some thug or another — including 47. She’s not a bad kid, just the victim of some bad breaks and an exceedingly bad pimp/boyfriend, who also happens to be the current Russian president, Mikhail Belicoff (Ulrich Thomsen). She’s confused because Agent 47 has been commissioned to assassinate that boyfriend/pimp/president, and has then come after her, before he decided to save her.

Nika handles this plotty chaos more or less appropriately — behaving in ways that are as erratic and incoherent as what she faces. 47 is slightly less interesting and seemingly more methodical. The film, which is exceptionally derivative, borrowing from multiple previous films and games — proposes that his brutality and efficiency are functions of his terrible background. Trained up from childhood to be a professional killer by the “Organization,” he’s an orphan (and so, “expendable,” according to the video0game-based narration), his mind focused, his body honed, and his head shaved and tattooed. His flashbacks look a lot like Max’s flashbacks in Dark Angel, with hazy fluorescent light making the child-victim-killers look pale and worried (the bar code tattoos underline the resemblance), even as they’re brainwashed into homicidal monsters (see also: The Parallax View, La femme Nikita). The hitch in Hitman is that 47 and his brethren are also conditioned to be good mercenaries (Elektra), their exorbitant fees deposited directly into secret accounts, their decisions premised at least in part on their contracts — last minute changes don’t so much rattle 47 as they occasion recalculations.

And sometimes, frustration, as when the female computer voice on 47’s laptop won’t give him a straight answer and he hits the laptop, hinting that his ultra-cool persona isn’t so rigid as he pretends. But Hitman isn’t interested in complex emotions or motivations. Rather, it maintains a pretty much relentless focus on the predictable poetry of 47’s effects. The violence he schemes and improvises is again and again rendered in slow motion, accompanied by “Ave Maria” or some other choral melody. He prefers to cross his weapons — automatic handguns, giant knives — over his chest, to underline his spiritual vocation and ensure that his shooting of multiple targets also looks, you know, freaking awesome.

Except that it doesn’t. For all the choreography in Hitman, 47 remains awkward. It’s not that he’s surprised by his skills (see: The Bourne Identity), as much as he looks distracted, or maybe, to his credit, bored. It’s not like he’s challenged by his supposed primary adversary, a stuffily dedicated Interpol agent Mike (Dougray Scott). If he says it once, he says it four times: he’s been chasing 47, the “ghost,” for three years, “knows him better than anyone,” and still can’t catch up. This current intrigue involves nefarious, retro politics (Rocky and Bullwinkle), switched identities via surgery (Face Off), turf conflicts between the international cops and the locals (FSB rep is played by Prison Break‘s Robert Knepper, with something like a Russian accent), and Belicoff’s dissolute brother Udre (Henry Ian Cusick), his evil summed up in his single scene, in which he brutalizes his busty, whimpering attendants (a point noted by 47, who’s wholesale destruction of every bit of glass and male body in the room leaves the girls alive — still whimpering).

The competition between Mike and 47 is set up in the first scene, when the assassin slips into Mike’s home to threaten his family. Mike’s bristling at such hubris suggests he actually cares about his unseen wife and kids, thus making 47’s terminal lack of empathy seem especially pathological. Still, Nika’s role as distressed damsel grants him possible redemption. “I’m not a whore by choice,” she sniffs, noting that Belicoff paid “300, American” for her, and that she’s been unable to escape since then.

Still, she’s not precisely sympathetic, mostly because she is confused, as she says. Having transported her in the trunk of his car (at least part of the way packed in with a corpse), 47 resists her usual enticements (exposed breasts, pouty lips, wraparound legs). Nika — as unworldly in her way as he is — feels insulted: “You don’t wanna fuck me, you don’t wanna kill me. I’ve never felt such indifference in all my life.” “Stop talking,” he moans, in dire need of sleep after a series of mass murders. “Or I’ll put you back in the trunk.” If only.

RATING 3 / 10