MOVIE REVIEW – Ever since Alain Delon’s great 1967 classic The Samurai, the ice-cold assassin has been a popular character in crime thrillers, film noirs, and other crime movies, killing in cold blood for good money, and though he is professional most of the time, something happens that brings him face to face with his former employers. The story has been told many times before, but we were curious to see what else David Fincher, of Seventh and Fight Club fame, had to say on the subject.
David Fincher’s new Netflix thriller The Killer is bloody, violent and has a kind of dry humor that unfortunately doesn’t always work. Its killer hero (Michael Fassbender) is the latest in a very long line of existentialist, sociopathic movie killers.
The killer without a name
We never learn his name, but we learn a lot about his philosophy of life, because he always talks in monologue. In the voice-over that accompanies the entire movie, we learn that he likes to listen to The Smiths while he works. He lives by various sacred rules, including “don’t improvise in advance,” “trust no one,” and “empathy is forbidden. His strangely poetic nature is underscored by his occasional references to Dylan Thomas.
In the bravura opening, he waits for a brief eternity high in a Paris building to shoot the next victim he has to kill. He’s willing to take as much time as the job requires, doing a little yoga and fiddling with his gun. He cares little for the identity of the victim. The killer is a bit of a voyeur. Like James Stewart in Rear Window, he uses his high-powered binoculars to peer into the lives of ordinary people as they go about their business, perhaps drinking coffee or making love. He seems the consummate professional. “If you can’t stand boredom, this is not the job for you,” he tells us. Then comes the fateful moment when he finally gets the chance to pull the trigger… and he misses.
Fassbender is great in this kind of role, as a lone wolf anti-hero who keeps his emotions firmly in check. He plays his character in a characteristically passionate and intense style, his brow furrowed, his concentration total. When he flees the scene in Paris, he forces himself to show no sign of the panic he clearly feels. He disguises himself as a German tourist because he realizes that he is melting down and that nobody likes German tourists anyway – so they leave him alone. Throughout the movie he does some very bad things, and yet we are always on his side.
Sometimes it becomes a self-parody
Fincher, working from a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (who also wrote the classic serial killer Se7en), directs as tightly as Fassbender acts. This is a movie without narrative slack. Nevertheless, the suspicion remains that the director is not taking the task entirely seriously. At moments of maximum tension, he occasionally undermines the action with a comic scene. For example, in the middle of a brutal fight, Fassbender reaches into a kitchen drawer with a kick-boxing heavy who wants to kill him, hoping to find a knife. Instead, he finds a cheese grater. The sudden burst of Morrissey songs, singing his deadliest and most quiet ballads, adds to the sense that the filmmakers are playing with the assassin genre. The movie is based on a graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent, and it’s not surprising that it has so little emotional depth.
After the disastrous failure in Paris, the assassin goes into hiding in the Dominican Republic. He soon discovers that his bosses put him up to the job. Worse, his girlfriend has been brutally attacked (though she refuses to divulge any information about it). Our hero vows revenge on her attackers. The story follows him in chapters as he chases lawyers and rival assassins from New Orleans to Chicago.
Tilda Swinton appears in a delightful cameo as a well-spoken assassin who has been described as “looking like an earwig”. A slim, elegant and very witty character whose approach to the art of killing is even more nihilistic than Fassbender’s. He loves fine food, malt whiskey and ice cream – and even in moments of extreme danger, he never loses his cool. He gets the best lines in the movie, even though his screen time is very limited.
Lacking real passion and professionalism
The Killer is directed with typical David Fincher skill, but without the director’s usual passion and professionalism. In its better moments, it has the same unrelenting intensity as films like Don Siegel’s Murderers (1964) or John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), in which Lee Marvin takes revenge on his former associates. The filmmaker always pays as much attention to detail as his murderous hero does to the logistics of killing his opponents. Fassbender is well cast and delivers a typically committed performance – peppered with moments of very deadpan humor.
However, the killer often slips into the territory of parodying himself, and does so in a somewhat clumsy way that is unusual for David Fincher. It is also questionable whether Fincher brings anything new to the genre. There’s little here that audiences haven’t already seen in other revenge horror films in which assassins are betrayed by their employers and thus brought down. Virtually every assassin movie since Samurai has been about this, and Fincher’s film offers nothing new or different about this basic story.
The mystery is also missing
Besides the fact that the movie is not very original, the character of the assassin has somehow lost the mystique that is typical for such movies. In contrast to Alain Delon’s “Samurai”, this assassin is concise and somehow too “ordinary”, and his monologues become tiresome for the constant viewer after a while. Tom Cruise’s Vincent in Colleteral also has a kind of desperate, perverse madness about him, though he likes his voice, but his character still has a kind of deadly mystique about him, as does Keanu Reeves’ John Wick. None of this is that typical of Fassbender, even though we don’t know his past or his name. Incidentally, Fassbender’s other assassin character, where he plays a medieval assassin in the video game adaptation of Assassin’s Creed, is also much more mystical than this assassin.
So David Fincher’s genre film The Assassin is a disappointment, on the one hand because his bourgeois assassin isn’t mystical enough, which is an important aspect of this character in a movie like this, and on the other hand because the rather simple and familiar story doesn’t bring anything new to the table – except that it doesn’t even have a memorable antagonist or a charismatic police inspector hunting our hero. Also for this reason, the story lacks tension, with showdowns in successive “missions”, usually with Fassbender’s killer in control – except for one instance, in a rather professional and extremely tough fight scene where our hero almost leaves his teeth behind, a scene that is probably the best part of the movie.
With the character of the assassin lacking mystery and real tension, and the story of a showdown between well-known principals, this movie is unfortunately a misfire, which is a disappointment for a director of David Fincher’s caliber.
-Gergely Herpai (BadSector)-