Revisiting the Reviled — ‘Hitman’ Has Some Cockeyed Aim

GameStop, Inc.

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

Over the course of this column, time and time again, I’ve gone over the inherent weaknesses of movies based upon video games. One key problem is that the video game movies take an audience from a situation of interactivity to passivity. Suddenly, all the glaring flaws of the story that are obscured by being an active participant are now noticeable to the passive observer. More so, these films have to appeal to a wider audience than just fans of the game. This leads to deadening exposition and attempts to pigeonhole the more fantastical elements into a more generic type of story. All of these problems afflict Hitman, the 2007 adaptation of the popular video game series. It’s a meandering mess of a movie, one that never has aim nearly as true as its main character. At best, it was a modest box office success, taking a modest haul of cash in relation to its modest budget. After years of starts and stops on a sequel that nobody was asking for, Hitman is being revived with Hitman: Agent 47, the subsequent reboot that nobody was asking for.

Timothy Olyphant is Agent 47, a master of murder for hire. As part of The Organization, Agent 47 was raised and trained to be an elite killing machine – he even has a barcode on the back of his shaved head to reinforce the whole machine aspect. Receiving his orders through an encrypted computer service, Agent 47 travels to Russia to carry out his latest order – the assassination of the Russian president (Ulrich Thomsen). Of course, he completes his task with lethal efficiency, but there’s a snag. According to reports, the Russian president has survived despite the fact we see his brains splatter all over the place. He had – shockingly! – a body double. As part of the film’s rote plotting it turns out that Agent 47 has been set up by The Organization, and is being chased after by not only the Russian secret police, led by the cartoonishly villainous Yuri Marklov (Robert Knepper) and Interpol, led by the noble and honorable Mike Whittier (Dougray Scott), but by his bald-headed colleagues as well. You see, writer Skip Woods and director Xavier Gens chose to go with the completely original and never-used story of an elite hitman betrayed by those whom employ him — this is truly the work of visionaries, and by visionaries I mean these guys have probably watched a handful of movies that date back all the way to the ‘80s.

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What’s an action film without a female lead? Produced by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp, which has a horrible track record with its female characters, Hitman adds Olga Kurylenko as Nika Boronina. Naturally, she’s mainly just a damsel in distress, but she’s also the purchased sex slave of the Russian president. This character could theoretically work if she was given, you know, characteristics, but her main purpose in the film, aside from strutting around naked, is to connect with Agent 47’s lost humanity though her sexuality. It’s odd how the film wants to have it both ways – a woman who has been sexually brutalized against her will and simultaneously willing to acquiesce to an emotionless bald man with a stupid barcode tattoo. She’s also straddled with ridiculous lines of dialogue. “You know, you’re really quite charming when you aren’t killing people,” she says at one point. Talk about a poorly worded use of a dialogue. After all, Agent 47 doesn’t even have a personality, let alone anything that could be mistaken for charming.

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A video game can benefit from having a main character with blank characteristics, allowing for the player to insert themselves in the action. However, in a movie that just won’t fly. We need to understand why a character performs his actions, not be merely told that he’s programmed to be the best at what he does. In the same vein, the mindless slaughter of anonymous bad guys can’t simply be transported from the video game realm into the cinematic without further contextualizing the violence itself. It also fails to really make its titular hitman’s violent deeds seem righteous, as if having just one semi-good mass murderer is enough to win over the audience. It’s no coincidence that the only action sequence that really works is a showdown between Agent 47 and three other of his bald colleagues. It works because we understand that these other fellows are a match to 47’s lethalness, not just an anonymous member of a SWAT team primed for the slaughter.

It’s hard to forgive a movie that so willfully squanders the talents of its star, Timothy Olyphant. In interviews later on, the actor would confess that he only took the job for the money following the cancellation of Deadwood. The director of Hitman, Xavier Gens, has yet to make another American film despite the fact that Hitman is far more visually comprehensible than anything produced by EuropaCorp over the past decade. Most bewildering of all is the fact that screenwriter Skip Woods continues to find gainful employment as a writer, including the writing gig for Hitman: Agent 47, the reboot of the series that he ineffectually wrote in the first place. And while I’m not one to view Rotten Tomatoes percentages as concrete evidence, the last six films scripted by Woods average out to a dismal 26% rating.

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The problems that afflict Hitman are similar to the problems that afflict all video game adaptations, and were also the same problems that affected early comic book adaptations. It’s all a matter of understanding how to transpose a medium to cinema, and it’s not like that’s been entirely figured out on the comic book end either. But Hitman isn’t a movie that’s bad enough to elicit any response other than overwhelming indifference. That indifference is more bone-crushingly lethal than anything within Hitman.

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