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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

"The Killer" is about as imaginative as its title

There comes a time when I just have to admit to myself that there are certain characters, storytelling devices, thematic elements and movie ideas in general that no longer have any interest for me. Among them: Napoleon, Tarzan and hitmen who stoically try to justify their line of work via voiceover. Hitmen like the one played by Michael Fassbender in David Fincher’s new film, “The Killer,” based on a graphic novel. See? Even that is supposed to get me excited like a trueblood male film critic. Don’t get me wrong. I often admire Fincher’s work and Fassbender is one of our most reliable actors working today. Both talents seem suitable for this kind of material to bring something different to the formula. Perhaps there also comes a time when certain kinds of excitement wear off, you have to settle in and understand that this won’t be anyone’s best work.

That’s okay. Fincher doesn’t always have to prove himself every time out. There are only so many “Se7en”s,“Fight Club”s or “Social Network”s you can make in a career. After all, it is not only Fincher’s themes and worldview that draw me in, but also his precise visual style, his pacing and the ambiguity that lurks within all the layers of morality and wrong-doing done by his flawed protagonists. In its best moments. “The Killer” certainly feels like a Fincher film even if it is, mostly, a by-the-numbers assassin tale. One might say this is like a fake poster for a Fincher movie hanging in the background of a parody movie, except it’s real. Fincher making a movie about a stoic hitman who loves to monologue a repetitive list of dos and don’ts before his next kill seems like it would be a first or second feature for him, not his eleventh or twelfth.

The film is broken up into seven chapters, the first one taking place mostly in the killer’s unoccupied room in Paris where he watches his target from afar. He exercises, eats McDonalds and listens to The Smiths on his ear buds. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, he says little to anyone, but we hear an endless screed, via voiceover, of typical hitmanisms of how “Empathy equals weakness,” “anticipate, don’t improvise,” and “I don't get involved, I just do the job” (or words to that effect) and we know damn well, at some point, we will meet someone he cares about (though we’ll never know why he cares about them, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

The plan fails. In typical hitman fashion, he trashes all his belongings in conveniently located garbage trucks and (in Chapter two) heads to his hideout in the Dominican Republic, where he comes home to find signs of a violent struggle. He eventually learns some people came for him who were tied to the botched job in Paris, a woman who means a lot to him got caught in the crossfire and now lies badly injured in a hospital. Chapter three is perhaps the strongest part of the film, in which the killer confronts the no-nonsense, straight-talking lawyer (Charles Parnell) of the people who sent these people out to kill him. The killer eventually goes home with the lawyer’s secretary (Kerry O’Malley) to get more information out of her.

Every chapter brings us to a new location, including St. Charles, Illinois, doubling for New York (never woulda’ thought of that, but okay). Here, late in the film, is where the killer confronts The Expert, played by Tilda Swinton, which signals to us that the film has been building up to this moment and we know it’s a big one because, finally, someone else gets to monologue for a while. Swinton is obviously a highlight of the film and arrives just in time, as the film starts to become a rote collection of sequences that we’ve seen many times before. Fassbender, at this point, still only gives us precious few ticks and facial expressions that will remind some of Ryan Gosling's similarly nuanced performance in “Drive.”

Fincher’s movies have never had to coast on the element of “cool” in an attempt to gain recognition from, say, the “John Wick” audience. Even his most flawed films (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Mank”) had been failures that were born out of a noble attempt to do something he hadn’t done before. “The Killer” is made up of seven chapters, all of them ending the way you would predict, but punctuated by a soundtrack consisting of eleven songs by The Smiths and the occasional glance at the killer’s ID card, always naming himself after famous sitcom characters that, of course, nobody recognizes (for someone who prides themselves on being precise and detailed about their line of work, this feels like a sloppy move on his part). By the end, though, I felt like I had seen a director coast on something that has all his immaculate style, but very little of the wit, intelligence and surprises that comprise his best work. No amount of detached irony can make up for it.

“The Killer” feels like a director and actor wanting to work together and finally getting the chance to do so, but the material didn’t quite satisfy. It is certainly a watchable film and there are some truly wonderful scenes sprinkled throughout. We watch having a feeling of where this film will end up and, once it does, we wonder why the director needed to take us there. I imagine many will find “The Killer” to be “cool,” that the detachment one is meant to feel toward this antihero is part of the film’s design and that’s how it earns its coolness. Like I said at the top, I feel like I’m done with this brand of “cool,” even if I did praise the latest “John Wick” film a few months back. That, at least, can dazzle you with its stunt work. Fincher’s films can dazzle us, too. Here’s hoping the next one does.

Rating: (**½)

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