This is the second part of what I started last week. The purpose of this column, plainly stated, is to bring the white devil to his knees.
Here’s how we do…
The Crop: Hitman
The Studio: 20th Century Fox
The Director: Xavier Gens
The Producers: Luc Besson, Adrian Askarieh, Chuck Gordon and Daniel Alter
The Writer: Skip Woods
The Actors: Timothy Olyphant, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko, Ulrich Thomsen, Michael Offei and Robert Knepper
Boy, That Last Name’s Familiar: Knepper is T-Bag from Prison Break. But he’ll always be Wild Thing to me (actually, in a wild coincidence I just stumbled upon via IMDb, he’s also son of our pets’ veterinarian when I was a kid!).
The Premise: Master assassin Agent 47 (Olyphant) is targeted for elimination when he fails to liquidate a burgeoning Russian politico eager to restart the Cold War. 47’s chief pursuer is British Interpol agent Michael Whittier (Scott), who’s been obsessively tracking the prolific hit man for three years over multiple continents.
The Script: Well, this a surprise! After recently being called on the carpet by producer Adrian Askarieh for a glibly dismissive news story about Dougray Scott’s casting, I did what any arrogant prick suffering from wounded pride would do: I chased down the screenplay for Hitman so that I might tear it a new one for being another mindless video game adaptation with less on its mind than the last Transporter flick. Though I don’t know Askarieh from Akkad, his claim that Woods’s draft was one of the best action screenplays in recent memory sounded like typical producer-speak. This isn’t to suggest I automatically thought Askarieh was full of it; it’s just that I’ve had bad luck taking producers at their word (and it’s been a Fox-specific problem for me, too).
While I’m not ready to proclaim Woods’s January 2007 draft of Hitman the greatest pure action screenplay since Die Hard, it is a well above-average take on the international espionage genre, which has been curiously popular in the wake of 9/11. The conventional wisdom regarding Woods’s last produced screenplay, Swordfish, has always been that it got excessively dumbed down during rewrites. This is entirely plausible after reading Hitman, which is polished, smart and genuinely exciting on the page. Woods even gets away with a wraparound device that should rob his script of some critical suspense; fortunately, he’s quite gifted at pacing, immersing the reader in the non-stop intrigue and relenting only to dispense with some shopworn exposition (which works better than it should because the characters are actually well-drawn for this kind of material).
The screenplay begins with Agent 47 surprising Whittier at his home in suburban London and threatening to plug the Interpol agent with an unsuppressed .45, the deafening report from which would wake Whittier’s family and, therefore, necessitate their murder, too. Though such an offer would’ve been Tet in July for Jeffrey MacDonald, Whittier seems enamored of his wife and daughter, so he humors 47’s desire to tell a tightly-structured two-hour story that strangely shifts perspective, suggesting 47 is not only a great killer but frighteningly omniscient.
Okay, so Woods isn’t exactly playing fair with the language of cinema. At least he covers his tracks by beginning 47’s tale with the amusingly elaborate offing of a sadistic Nigerian warlord which begins, but – in a literal bit of overkill – does not end with a prisoner being fed a large quantity of C-4. It’s grisly stuff on the page, and will hopefully be just as grisly on the screen*. Before getting into the guts of the narrative, Woods cuts back to the scene in Whittier’s home, where 47 asks his straight-arrow captive, "How does a good man decide when to kill?"
This is awfully weighty for studio action product, but Woods is a skillful enough writer to imbue his script with some on-the-fly moralizing that humanizes 47. As is always the case in Hollywood movies like this, cold-blooded killers are reliably only one child or one female hostage removed from melting like Alex Rebar (I had to IMDb that, too); ergo, when 47’s assassination of Mikhail Belicoff, the aforementioned Russian politician, goes suspiciously awry, it isn’t long before he’s lugging around a smokin’ hot Russian prostitute who can help the professional killer even the score with his wily target.
Again, Woods’s great talent is for mildly subverting formula, so he gives the whore, Nika (Kurylenko), a pretty tough monologue about being sold into prostitution and losing her virginity "to six men in the back of the transport truck" (substitute
out "transport truck" with "Hummer H2 SUV" and you’ve got a
regular Saturday night at the University of Miami). This kind of frankness is rare in a Hollywood production, but, since torture is to 2007 what age-swapping was to 1988, I’ve every confidence this moment will stay in the script.
By the way, does any of this sound like the video game? I’ve never played it, but I’m going to bet that the "Diana" character who transmits 47’s assignments via satellite in "micro-burst, encrypted info-packets" is a part of the game (I could research this, but I much prefer being admonished in emails and message board posts for being a gigantic ignoramus). There’s also the duplicitous Chief Inspector of the FSB, Yuri Marklov, who intentionally frustrates Whittier’s efforts to catch 47 in order to cover up a hardliner conspiracy dedicated to installing the fascistic Belicoff as President.
Whether the screenplay honors the game, I could care less; all I want is an invigorating action flick with some bravura set-pieces. And that’s what Woods delivers. As with the Bourne films, the fun in Hitman is the way 47 improvises when everything goes to shit; to Woods’s credit, 47’s second and third options are generally plausible. This is smart stuff. I’m hopeful.
Why It Should Be Good: Aside from Woods’s screenplay, I love the two leads. Though there seems to be some disagreement over Timothy Olyphant’s acting chops, I personally like the guy a bunch. That said, I prefer him in charismatic scumbag mode ala Go or The Girl Next Door rather than grim-faced deputy, as he pulled off capably but joylessly in Deadwood. Agent 47 is going to be more of the latter.
And while I gave Dougray Scott a rash of shit in that previous news item, I hold him in very high regard as an actor. He’s got a tendency to slum (i.e. make a living), but he was excellent in Enigma (a highly recommended WWII spy drama written by my personal lord and savior, Tom Stoppard). The role of Whittier is kind of dry, but it’ll give him a chance to play a full-on sympathetic lead for once (or co-lead).
And then there’s Dr. Knepper’s son! You might think I’m driving this into the ground, but if you suddenly learned that your former veterinarian’s kid was Wild Thing, you’d be worked up, too!
Why It Might Suck: Luc Besson. As I didn’t do the last time I wrote about this project, I’m going to plead ignorance as to what’s going on behind the scenes on Hitman. That said, Besson’s seeming preference for cartoonish action would mar what should play like The Bourne Supremacy or Casino Royale. Will director Gens, a completely unknown quantity, be able to go big without turning this into an orgy of wirework and CG? And it’s not just about the stunts being practical; I mean, a guy jumping off a speeding train onto the hood of a car traveling sixty-miles-per-hour is horribly unrealistic, but there is a way to make it feel right (i.e. not laughable) in that world. The original Speed accomplished that with great success.
When You’ll Get to See It: The tentative release date is October 12, 2007. If that gets moved up to Labor Day weekend, be concerned.
What I’ll Be Rambling About Next: Good question. I just got my hands on the screenplay for a very unexpected sequel that, if all goes according to plan, will reunite all of the integral behind-the-camera talent. Hint: it’s unexpected because it might’ve already spawned a direct-to-DVD follow-up or two. Or just one. Can’t really say.
*Thus invoking the inevitable MPAA question: this is very R-rated and should stay that way despite the video game pedigree. Though I haven’t played the game, my understanding is that it’s intended for mature audiences, so why dilute the material? It may have worked for Mortal Kombat, but that was over a decade ago. A PG-13 reeks of compromise; the target demographic would sniff it out immediately and stay the fuck away.