Netflix hitman film The Killer starring Michael Fassbender is disappointing and seems “hollow and pointless”, writes Nicholas Barber from Venice Film Festival.
In the first minute of David Fincher‘s The Killer, there’s a line that could have been put there especially for critics to scribble in their notepads, just in case it might prove useful. “If you are unable to endure boredom,” says Michael Fassbender in a murmuring voiceover, “this work isn’t for you.” Initially, it seems unlikely that any reviewer might use that line. The director of Fight Club, Zodiac and The Social Network, Fincher doesn’t generally make boring films, and this one is a hitman thriller based on a French graphic novel, and scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote the screenplay for Seven. You’d assume it would be the least boring of the lot.
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But that assumption is shaken during the lengthy opening sequence. Fassbender’s unnamed freelance assassin is sitting in a bare unused office across the road from a swanky hotel in Paris. While he waits for his target to check in, he checks his rifle, does his exercises, takes some naps and buys some food, all the while droning on about his career and his philosophy in soporific voiceover. In scene after scene, he trots out statistics, quotes and banal maxims, like a stoner at a party, until it seems as if he could be the first ever hitman whose principal modus operandi is to bore his victims to death.
Things liven up a little when the target eventually turns up in the hotel. For all of the assassin’s lectures about how to do the job well, he makes a mess of this one, and shoots the wrong person. As a result, his boss sends a team to get rid of him, and he in turn sets about hunting down everyone involved. He takes planes from city to city, changing identity as he goes, saying as little as possible, and keeping himself calm by listening to The Smiths’ greatest hits on his headphones. After half an hour, many viewers will feel that they should listen to The Smiths more often. After an hour and a half, they’ll feel that they never want to hear them again.
Still, there are some sequences which don’t require any boredom endurance. You get to see the anti-hero’s tricks of the trade: apparently Amazon deliveries are useful for hitmen these days. There are some amusing lines, too. When he’s out and about, he says, he dresses as a German tourist, because no one wants to engage with a German tourist. There’s also one terrifically choreographed and brutal fight scene, and Tilda Swinton gets to show off her latest cool haircut in a cameo appearance. But The Killer remains a slow, drab, unsurprising affair which will be over-familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a lone assassin film before. Even in the most entertaining parts, it has few traces of Fincher’s usual explosive creativity.
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Charles Parnell, Monique Ganderton
Run time: 1hr 53min
On one level, I realise, the dullness is the point. Fassbender’s character is meant to be a diligent nobody: not glamorous, not charming, neither ferociously cruel nor icily cold, and not even particularly gifted at his line of work. But I’m not sure that justifies the film’s own efficiently plodding approach because it never seems as if Fincher is giving us the inside track on how assassins actually operate. As ordinary as the protagonist is on one level, he isn’t any more believable than the balletic executioners in John Wick. He’s still a fantasy figure, even if he’s a fantasy figure who doesn’t dress in a snazzy suit, so The Killer ends up seeming hollow and pointless.
Despite premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival, it’s the kind of trifling exercise that Steven Soderbergh knocks out when he fancies trying out a new camera. Fincher has talked about making The Killer for well over a decade, but it still comes across as a relaxed holiday project. Perhaps, after Mank in 2020, he was in the mood to take on something cheaper and easier, so we can only hope that he sets his sights on a major work next time around.
The Killer is released on 27 October in selected cinemas, and on 10 November on Netflix.
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