Friday, May 29, 2009

DVD Views: Killshot

Killshot ** ½
Directed By:
John Madden.
Written By: Hossein Amini based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.
Starring: Mickey Rourke (Armand 'The Blackbird' Degas), Diane Lane (Carmen Colson), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Richie Nix), Thomas Jane (Wayne Colson), Rosario Dawson (Donna), Aldred Montoya (Lionel), Hal Holbrook (Papa).

Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite authors, and Killshot is one of his very best books. No one writes a crime story like Leonard does, full of interesting characters, gritty, realistic, yet still fun dialogue, and plots that slowly tighten the noose around the necks of its characters. All of these elements are in full effect in his Killshot novel, and the screenplay for this movie by Hossein Amini does a faithful job of bringing it all to the screen. You could not ask for a better cast for the movie, all of whom do a wonderful job playing their characters. Why then am I so disappointed in the movie? What should have been one of the best crime thrillers of the year instead just kind of sits there on the screen despite all the elements of the movie that do work. The biggest mistake, it seems to me, was hiring John Madden to direct. Best known for prestige, or would be, prestige films like Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love and Proof, Madden can do those types of stories quite well. When faced with a thriller though, he gets the pacing all wrong. When the film should be generating tremendous tension, it just feels lax.

Despite this, Mickey Rourke gives an excellent performance as Armand “The Blackbird” Degas, a Native hit man associated with the Toronto Mafia (we have one?). He and his brothers – one of whom is now dead, the other in jail for the rest of his life, were hit men for hire, doing the jobs that no one else associated with the Outfit would go near. Armand is contacted by the Mafia’s second in command with a job – kill the Boss (Hal Holbrook). He does, but angers his employer – who is now the new boss – when he also kills a girl in the hotel room with the Boss. It seems that he belonged to the guy, who is now so upset, he refuses to pay Armand his money, and has taken out a contract on him.

Then we meet Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an out of control kid who is loud and boisterous, but not all that bright. He brags about his crimes to anyone who will listen. An idea strikes him and he calls up a local real estate developer and tells him unless he wants his new houses destroyed, and himself killed, he will pay Richie $20,000 when he shows up at his office. When Armand and Richie meet up by chance, Armand agrees to go in on the deal with him. No, it doesn’t sound a particularly good plan, but it may work, and he needs the money.

Well, of course, it doesn’t work. Worse then not getting the money, both Wayne and Carmen Colson (Thomas Jane and Diane Lane), a married couple going through a divorce, see both men and can identify them. Armand’s rule is to never trust someone not to remember you, so after he and Richie flee the scene in a panic, they set out to kill the Colsons. No witnesses, no crime, they think.

The Elmore Leonard novel on which this movie was based weaved together these characters – and more, most important Donna (Rosario Dawson), Richie’s girlfriend, who is both repulsed and attracted to Armand – effortlessly, and gradually ratcheted up the tension until we get to the final showdown. The movie, which follows the same plot almost scene for scene, does not accomplish this same feat. The mounting feeling of dread in the novel has been replaced by a sense of sadness hanging over the whole movie. And while this makes for some interesting moments, it isn’t good for the film unto itself. Which is a shame, because the performances are mostly very good. Rourke is perfect for a role like Armand – looking at Rourke’s lined and scarred face is like looking at a roadmap to and from Hell. Armand is tired of doing what he does, and is full of regret. But he is a man without a home, without family, without money, without skills. This is all he knows. When someone asks him what he does for a living he says “I kill people. Sometimes for money, sometimes for fun” it doesn’t snap the way the dialogue did in films like Get Shorty, Out of Sight or Jackie Brown (all based on Leonard novels), but rather expresses Armand’s world weariness. He is playing a role, and is too tired to give it all he has anymore. Gordon-Levitt continues to impress me more and more with each passing year. He has no proven he can do just about anything, and his Richie Nix is a scary psychopath. He is essentially just a boisterous boy when the film begins, but Armand’s influence seems to flip a switch in him and he turns into a psycho. Diane Lane and Thomas Jane are solid, if not spectacular in their roles. They don’t have as much to work with, but they really do feel like a couple who still love each other, even if they cannot quite make their marriage work. Worse off is Dawson, who has to play a more subdued character than she is used to, and doesn’t quite pull it off. Usually a sexual firecracker (most notably her underrated performance in Oliver Stone’s Alexander), here she doesn’t get to let loose, and the result is an uneven performance.

Had the film, with this same cast, had been directed by a Tarantino or even a Guy Ritchie, it probably would have come to life more. But Madden is a director more used to subtlety, which at times work, but is wrong for this material. He doesn’t get the tone right, and as a result, what should have been one of the year’s best, is merely okay.

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