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Friday, March 28, 2008
Straight from hell
By KAORI SHOJI
Saying that you enjoy watching the film "Hitman" is like admitting to an affinity for consuming spicy chicken wings while chain smoking. Or dating acne-ridden criminals on parole. To say that "Hitman" is bad is way off the mark; it's worthier of adjectives like "god-awful" and "puke-provoking." The truth is that "Hitman" is so disgusting it's good. You just don't want to admit it.
When a movie's this crammed with gratuitous violence, nudity, and slop-pails of profanity, when it's actually a remake of a famed video game (same title), it's best to keep such preferences to yourself, dinner invitations-wise.
Before this fiendish vehicle, director Xavier Gens' last foray was an unpalatable porn-torture picture called "Frontiere(s)." With "Hitman," Gens appears to be comfortably ensconced in his groove. Between him and screenwriter Skip Woods, they have a glorious time flushing things like consistency, coherency and other humdrum cinematic considerations straight down the toilet. What remains is a lot of blood and gore in the foreground; gray, mildewy Russian cityscapes in the background; and nothing much connecting anything in between. But then again, this is based on a video game, a media that scorns narrative concerns, so let's not get too fussy.
Reputedly, "Hitman" is much more watchable than other films in the genre, and Gens — a gamer himself — is in confident command of the material. He knows to have the hit man (Timothy Olyphant) strike poses at every opportunity (even when he's in the middle of a shootout and in danger of being emasculated); knows to favor bad one-liners over explanatory dialogue (who cares if the audience is clueless about what's happening?); and is convinced undressed babes beat designer labels, any old time. Get those down and the picture practically edits itself. In fact, judging from the choppity-chop sequences and gaping plot holes that remain gleefully ignored, that's probably a good approximation of what happened.
It's difficult not to dissolve in the adrenal ecstasy that only a well-made bad movie can provide. "Hitman" especially fits the bill thanks to the profoundly ridiculous title hero — an assassin known only as "Agent 47." This guy has been trained from babyhood to successfully kill targets and walk away from the scene unscathed, leaving no trace of himself, an education that has left him ruthless, friendless and (inexplicably) hairless. An identity bar code is tattooed on the back of his head, and 47 revels in keeping that area gleamingly visible, in contrast to the first rule of a hit man, which is to move through the world as a veritable shadow. It's a wonder how 47 ever manages to get through customs with that head, but there he is in Russia, assigned to kill the president, Belicoff (Ulrich Thomsen). Meanwhile, Interpol detective Mike Whittier (Dougray Scott) is pursuing 47 with a pain-in-the-ass doggedness. But 47's got other problems. Belicoff's girlfriend, Nika (Olga Kurylenko), offers herself to him, first as a sexual slave and then as a buddy/partner. Our hit man has been trained to be emotionless at all times, but he's not totally immune to Nika's charms — duh!
Vin Diesel was named to play 47, but the part ultimately went to Olyphant, and Diesel became executive producer. Perhaps it would have been better to stick to the original plan — Olyphant is perfectly capable as a hired assassin (his last role was the techie terrorist in "Live Free or Die Hard"), but his poised, stylish looks and impeccable Gucci suits clash with the video game image of an ugly, angry assassin deprived of his childhood and personal identity.
It also takes forever to get anything going with Nika, which is hard to swallow given that she spends much of her screen-time clad in the skimpiest, flimsiest fragments of dresses or none at all. We know that 47 is trained not to like anyone, but there's not liking and then there's being freakishly monkish. The fact that the pair look gorgeous together in locales like backstreet Moscow and old-world hotel rooms in St. Petersburg adds to that Vogue magazine-shoot feeling, and the picture temporarily strays from its intended mission of racking up the body count at the speed of light.
In that sense, "Hitman" is an old-fashioned action film: It has a big heart and wants to give us it all — the nudity, the romance, the bone-crunching, brain-spilling muck-rack in all its gun-slinging splendor.