With the upcoming release of the action film "Hitman" I did something I've never done before and likely will not do again. Having seen the cool advertisements and been intrigued by the premise I bought one of the video games upon which the film was based.
It was a used copy of "Hitman 2: Silent Assassin" for Playstation 2. Despite my videogaming having peaked a decade or so ago in junior high I do occasionally indulge every now and then - usually in a social sense. Rounds of "Guitar Hero III," the "Halo" series, "Wii Sports," or "Super Smash Brothers Melee," can be justified as time spent bonding with friends or family members. One player games are a different story, though. When I've got shelves full of unread books and unwatched movies, a long Netflix queue, a tall stack of political periodicals I'm behind on, and a novel yelling "write me! write me!," one-player gaming just seems like a self-indulgent waste of time.
That said, "Hitman 2" is a very seductive game that's managed to steal too much of my time. The game is a combination third-person/first person shooter. (Translation to non-gamers: when playing you can either choose to see through the character's eyes [first person] or a few feet behind the character's shoulder [third person.]) The character you play is Agent 47, the world's top assassin. Forty-Seven is the result of genetic engineering (A plot point not included in the film.) While he's not superhuman, he is at the peak of human conditioning physically and mentally. So he's kind of like Batman except more homicidal. He's also well-versed in weapons, combat, and any killer-related skill (lock-picking, disguises, fluency in languages, etc.) He also has a specific look: bald head with a barcode on the back of his skull, black suit, red tie.
Each level of the game is a different hit. You might be sent to take out a mafia don, a Russian general, a yakuza boss, etc. The especially fun thing about the game is that each mission can be completed in numerous ways and styles. The target could be killed with a sniper rifle, poisoned food, car bomb, strangulation-wire, or any number of different weapons. It's also up to the player to decide how they're going to approach their mission. On the one hand you can use stealth - wear disguises, kill quietly, move dead bodies to where they won't be found. Or you can pull out your signature weapons -- two silver pistols -- and just charge in with both barrels blasting, killing everything that moves.
It's a really fun game and I might even get the third and forth titles ("Hitman: Contracts" and "Hitman: Blood Money") after beating "Silent Assassin."
The game very clearly had potential as a film. You've got a badass protagonist, a decent premise, and the opportunity for some gorgeous bullet ballet. In the right hands a film of "Hitman" could be an action classic on par with the best of John Woo and Robert Rodriguez.
Unfortunately that did not happen. That's OK, though, because we did not get a Chernobyl-level disaster. Instead, "Hitman" is a textbook example of an average, by-the-numbers, watchable, entertaining action flick. By no means is it a bad film; it's just not particularly notable.
Agent 47 is played capably by Timothy Olyphant, an actor best known for starring as Sheriff Seth Bullock in the revisionist Western HBO series "Deadwood." (If you have not seen "Deadwood" then rent it IMMEDIATELY.) Here he plays a character very different than the short-tempered lawman for which he's known.
The plot is conventional and predictable. You've seen it all before in numerous action pictures. The action hero protagonist is doing his violent job when he is either double-crossed by his employers or an outside antagonist goes after him. (In this case 47's assassination agency dispatches its agents to kill him.) Our hero must then flee. Along the way he picks up a woman - usually a prostitute, stripper, or some overly-sexualized type - who he needs to protect. Of course, there's a subtle, sometimes not-so subtle, sexism or even misogyny regarding the depiction of the female character. She's usually either roughed up a bit, or there are demeaning jokes, or an entirely unnecessary sex scene, or she's identified primarily as a sex object mainly interested in sex with the hero, or there's gratuitous nudity. Over the course of the film our hero and his love interest fight their way to the top where they go after the one who has been sending all the men to kill them. In between the action sequences and escape scenes there are the obligatory sequences with cops, spies, high-up government intelligence or military officers who talk about the situation and butt heads about how to handle it. These scenes are usually boring, populated with wince-inducing, wooden acting and boring, purely plot-driven dialogue. It's all designed as the 13 to 30-year-old male's fantasy.
That's "Hitman." It operates with the same arithmetic as its action movie kin. As a film it's a solid D: bad acting, bad characters, bad dialogue, done-a-million-times plot, no notable cinematography. As an action experience it's a B+. The hero is an elegant killing machine, capable of dispatching dozens of baddies in endlessly inventive ways. Hence a C+. The film gets a few extra points since its action is especially good. Also appreciated are a few winks at the audience indicating that the film is not taking itself too seriously. Early on in the film, during the first escape scene, 47 crashes through a window in a hotel to find two kids playing one of the "Hitman" games. Also, near the end there's a clever nod to the "Saw" horror series when 47 devises a strange death contraption for one of his enemies. Giving him the instructions on how to save himself, 47 intones "Life or death, make you choice."
To put things into perspective, as far as the "action porn film" goes - a subject I've written about before - "Hitman" is a moderate success. Definition of "moderate success": an entertaining picture that will appeal to the audience for which it was made. It's nowhere near this year's clear winner, "Shoot 'Em Up," an endlessly inventive and over-the-top film. It is, however, vastly superior to the Jet Li/Jason Statham picture "War."
Ultimately "Hitman" is a pleasant surprise. Films based on a video game, directed by a first-time director, with a rottentomatoes.com approval rating in the low teens (13 percent) are almost never as good as "Hitman." For fans of action movies and the video game it should prove sufficient.