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When a husband and wife witness a shakedown, they discover that the Witness Protection Program is no match for a pair of ruthless killers who want them dead.
For more about Killshot and the Killshot Blu-ray release, see Killshot Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on February 17, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Diane Lane, Mickey Rourke, Thomas Jane, Rosario Dawson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook
Director: John Madden (I)
» See full cast & crew
Killshot Blu-ray Review
The Federal Witness Protection Program Wild.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, February 17, 2011
My colleague Ken Brown recently reviewed the 1994 Meryl Streep film The River Wild and accurately described it as "standard '90s fare, but good standard '90s fare." If you want to see a film that revisits several of The River Wild's elements, but prefer to have your stolid family in peril not play out on raging rapids, you might get some fitful thrills from 2009's Killshot. Substitute Diane Lane for Streep, Mickey Rourke and Joseph Gordon-Levitt for Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly, and Thomas Jane for David Straitharn, and you can pretty much guess where Killshot is going to go. The getting there may not be as viscerally exciting as the plunge through violent waters in The River Wild is, but there's a level of tension and some really fine performances to help offset the predictability and cobbled together elements of this film, which received a pitiful theatrical release and has been consigned more or less to the straight to video market.
Film adaptations of Elmore Leonard's iconoclastic novels and short stories have been a rather hit or miss affair. When they're well done, as in Get Shorty, they bristle with cynical flair and brilliantly drawn character studies. When they flail, as in the lamentable Stick, they flounder about in a morass of style desperately in search of some substance. Killshot probably falls somewhere in between these two extremes. It's buoyed by two well defined star turns by Rourke as Mafia hitman Blackbird and Lane as suburban real estate agent and divorcée Carmen. Gordon-Levitt and Jane in supporting roles are equally excellent, even if Gordon-Levitt is left to manically chew the scenery in his portrayal of Bird's accomplice, a gangster wannabe named Richie, while Jane is left to be the strong, silent type trying to reconcile with his estranged ex-wife. What hobbles Killshot is its completely baffling lack of logic and ill timed coincidences and increasing implausibility, none of which can be totally offset by the idiosyncratic characters which have always been a Leonard hallmark.
Killshot starts off with a literal and figurative bang, quickly establishing Rourke's character as a no-nonsense hitman who always knows what he's getting into, has his shots planned, and his exit strategy secured. He's haunted by the one hit which went wrong, when his kid brother spent too long staring at a nurse who stumbled into the murder scene, leading to a chaotic and bloody outcome. In one of the many clichés which clings to the fringes of the film, Blackbird is offered "one last hit" at double his usual price, which of course should set him free, and for life. He wants to go back to his childhood Indian reservation, though his half-breed status makes him an outcast there, as he seems to be everywhere.
Playing out against Blackbird's backstory is the decaying marriage of Carmen (Lane) and Wayne (Jane). Once again from the Screenwriting 101 handbook, we get two basically decent people whom anyone can see belong together if only they could get past their own stubborn pride. But their divorce is more or less final, and they're in the final stages of moving out of their home, even as Wayne gets fired from his construction job and decided maybe he, like Carmen, will go into the real estate game. The third leg of this trifecta is the oddest and most hyperbolic. Gordon-Levitt plays smalltime hood Richie, a kid whose usual modus operandi is robbing banks and convenience stores, but who, after a failed attempt at robbing Blackbird (yet another one of those pesky coincidences), he decides Blackbird would be his perfect mentor, and he lets the aging hitman in on a shakedown scheme he's concocted to elicit twenty grand from the local real estate magnate. Guess who works for said magnate?
That sets up the central showdown of Killshot, which, while undeniably fierce and potent, and even a little funny at times, is built so shakily on a series of coincidences that it simply strains credulity to the breaking point. Carmen is working through lunch. Wayne shows up to beg Carmen's boss, the guy who's getting shaken down, for a job. In strut Blackbird and Richie, who of course mistake Wayne for their intended target and start wreaking havoc on the office. Wayne manages to get the pair outside where he begins viciously attacking them with a tire iron. Meanwhile, Carmen wonders what's going on and comes out, coming face to face with a stunned Blackbird. Did I mention Blackbird always kills any witnesses to his crimes?
And so the second two acts of Killshot are a slow, steady cat and mouse game where Carmen and Wayne supposedly enter the Federal Witness Protection Program, evidently the most stupidly run bureaucracy in the entire U.S. Government. They're spirited away to Missouri where they nonetheless are able to stay in phone contact with relatives, who of course give their location away to the marauding gangsters. Is it even worth mentioning that Blackbird and Richie show up to terrorize Carmen? And that Wayne and Carmen find that dealing with bad guys who are out to kill them enables them to rekindle their abiding love for each other?
It probably sounds worse than it actually is, and that's due largely to the power of the performances. Hollywood loves second acts and comebacks, and Rourke has been on quite a ride since his The Wrestler triumph. Rourke has the reputation for being something of a wild man, but perhaps age has at least slightly mellowed his approach. You might initially think he's speaking oddly here, until you realize he has achieved a virtually pitch perfect recreation of a Native American Midwest accent. But even more impressively, Rourke, in a very quiet and understated way, is able to portray a deeply wounded, lonely soul who's attempting to reach his own salvation, albeit doing so by randomly killing people. Lane is every bit his match here, in a beautifully modulated performance that is especially impressive in the final act of the film, when Carmen finds herself stranded in a backwoods cabin with her two nemeses. And for anyone who still associates Gordon-Levitt with his adolescent turn on Third Rock from the Sun, you're in for one hell of a surprise. His Richie is a despicable lowlife with absolutely no redeeming characteristics, and the actor pulls it off without a hitch.
It's a little surprising to see John Madden (Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse, Shakespeare in Love) helming this sort of unseemly and brutal enterprise, and the film was evidently wrested from his control after its completion. There's a certain unevenness of tone throughout Killshot that argues toward a "final cut by committee." The film starts out terrifically, with some great moments with Rourke completing a hit against an aging mobster (Hal Holbrook in a nice cameo), but it then bogs down into some of the marital strife of Carmen and Wayne, before it then goes Grand Guignol in the final act. I frankly haven't read the original Leonard novel on which the film is based, but I highly doubt it's this tonally schizoid.
Killshot has a lot going for it in any event, if you can get past some of the patently ludicrous plot elements. To paraphrase and slightly mangle my colleague Ken Brown's comments about The River Wild, it's standard 2009 fare, but it's pretty good standard 2009 fare.
Killshot Blu-ray, Video Quality
Killshot was lensed by the iconic Caleb Deschanel, and thankfully this new Blu-ray reproduces the rich and dark hues of Deschanel's cinematography to a tee. Delivered via an AVC codec, in 1080p and 2.35:1, this is a marvelous looking film that manages to capture the despair of Blackbird in a variety of barren landscapes and a palette dripping in cobalt blues and mournful grays. Fine detail is exceptional throughout the film, with Rourke's weathered face almost frighteningly on display. Contrast is excellent and solid black levels help contribute menace to the final act of the film, which takes place in the dimly lit cabin where Carmen and Wayne have taken refuge. There are a couple of post-processed scenes here, which play out as flashbacks, where we have intentionally overblown contrast and an overly grainy image, but, again, these look great, if more mannered than the bulk of the film. Grain throughout the film is intact and helps give Killshot appropriate depth and lustre.
Killshot Blu-ray, Audio Quality
You know you're in for a roller coaster ride right off the bat with Killshot's explosive lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. While some menacing LFE rumbles across the soundfield, the equally menacing rasp of Rourke's narration spills over the channels, until finally we're right in the middle of a hit. The gunfire which populates this film is all delivered with appropriate punch and panache, but there's a finely attuned range of dynamics throughout Killshot which actually help immensely to up the tension when the violence finally breaks out. A couple of the over the top sequences, notably Blackbird and Richie attacking the real estate office, and, later, Richie going literally ballistic in a convenience store, are incredibly immersive, with a variety of sound effects that may tempt some listeners to duck a time or two. Dialogue is very well reproduced, cleanly and clearly, and the minimal underscore is also well mixed.
Killshot Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
There's only one supplement on this new Blu-ray of Killshot, but it's a doozy. Sparks (SD; 24:01) is a fascinating little short film written for the screen and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, adapting yet another Leonard short story. Here we have Carla Gugino as a possible arsonist and Eric Stoltz as the insurance investigator who's sent to determine whether her story of her house burning down makes any sense. Around that two-character foundation Gordon-Levitt weaves an impeccably innovative piece which features sight gags, unexpected edits and a variety of points of view to keep the viewer just slightly off kilter. If this is any indication of what Gordon-Levitt is capable of, he frankly has a major directorial career ahead of him.
Killshot Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Killshot may in total be a near miss, but enough here finds its target that many viewers will be drawn in by its quirky lead villains, even while the married (and/or newly divorced) couple in peril plotline seems more than a bit stale. Rourke, Lane and Gordon-Levitt are spectacularly effective here, and Deschanel's evocative cinematography is both gorgeous and slightly menacing, not an easy task to pull off. Though the film has its share of faults, there's more than enough here to earn a Recommended rating.
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