17 June 2010

Old and Noir

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

It's a sign of the times when a romantic comedy set in the present day actually looks old compared to a noir thriller based on a pulp novel from the 1950s. Alas, that's the case with Michael Winterbottom's intense and uncomfortable new film, The Killer Inside Me and the latest from romcom arch-bastard Robert Luketic, snappily and misleadingly titled Killers. Hell, both involve killing, so it's all good right? Right?


So Killers reunites Katherine Heigl with her director on The Ugly Truth, Robert Luketic. The collaboration we were all dying to see this year. She plays Jen, who meets a contract killer named Spencer while holidaying in France with her parents. He doesn't choose to share his past vocation with her once they put down some roots and "hilarity ensues" when his former bosses put out a $20 million hit on him.

There was a time when films provided a real escape from ordinary life for viewers who couldn't afford to actually travel the world, seeing beautiful places and beautiful people. As you'll have noticed, times have changed. Standards of beauty have adjusted and the ability to holiday in France is well within many people's means. Another minor change is that while the premise of this film wasn't great back when James Cameron did it in True Lies, it's even worse now.

The majority of this is just going to be me wailing on Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher, because while they're not the beginning and end of the problems with Killers, they're certainly largely at fault. Maybe less so than the casting department, because the fact is that these two have absolutely no chemistry. Sure, we're meant to idolise each of them, but if you use that logic to say they make a good couple, we're in the same territory as the genetically suitable gag from The Invention of Lying.

Some of that idolatry is just weird though. At one point Jen refers to Spencer as a paragon of "god-like perfection". Really? The Punk'd guy?! OK, there's a certain level of over-statement in some romantic comedies that I can let slide, but Kutcher isn't likeable in this at all. He's not as bad as he was in Valentine's Day, but then nobody in that huge cast has ever been as bad as they were in that film. He's unequal to the task of being an interesting or convincing action hero here.

It doesn't help that he's no James Bond, but he utterly sinks when paired with Katherine Heigl as his er... lovely wife. After her star-making turn in Knocked Up, Heigl downright chomped on the hand that fed by calling it an immature and sexist film and she's had a succession of roles in romantic comedies like these. Casting someone this outspoken opposite an actor as weak as Kutcher leads to her apparently clueless character telling the experienced professional killer what to do. If this is Heigl's idea of a strong female role, it's impossible to see what her beef was with Judd Apatow's writing.

They're not entirely to blame- be assured that the script is routinely awful too. Luketic's direction is systematic and trite, and there's a poor attempt to compensate for the lack of a decent action star in the lead. This involves casting third-tier comedy actors as the sleeper agents sent after Spencer. While I admit that the one smirk this alleged comedy raised out of me was at the behest of that intense Vegas cop from The Hangover, he's no manner of hitman. See also, the woman who does the voice of Lois Griffin in Family Guy.

To be frank, Killers is a far cry from the worst film you could see this year and it's certainly not as bad as last year's Luketic monstrosity The Ugly Truth, but at the same time I can't understand why anyone would like this. It's not funny, it's not interesting and the leads make for the weakest double act since Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry in Die Another Day. And at least you'd believe they could kill things- you can barely even believe Heigl and Kutcher would be friends.

Killers is playing in cinemas nationwide from June 18th

The Killer Inside Me follows Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford on a destructive if subtle rampage through his sleepy hometown, Central City. Psychotic and mentally unbalanced by his troubled past, Lou embarks upon violent relationships with stubborn prostitute Joyce and childhood sweetheart Amy, while his colleagues race after him trying to attribute his atrocious crimes.

Director Michael Winterbottom has copped a lot of flak for the violence in this stylish noir-thriller, and to some extent, such a response is justified. I don't know whether or not he set out to offend people, but he's certainly unapologetic for the film's unflinching violence towards women.

He quite rightly says that those scenes are supposed to be repugnant, chiming with a long-held view of mine that the casual approach of killing hundreds or thousands of innocent bystanders in big dumb 12A-rated action films is more damaging than the harsh approach of films like this.

With controversy swirling around it regardless of what you or I think, it only remains to say whether or not it's a good film. On balance, yes it is. It has a compulsively watchable central performance from Casey Affleck as Lou, which makes those violent scenes all the more difficult to look away from. The man has a magnetic screen presence as a psychologically damaged, and therefore unreliable narrator and protagonist.

In any other film, you'd wince at the casting of Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba, two actresses who haven't exactly been setting the world alight with their great performances, line delivery or career choices. Here, they're both more than bearable, and even watchable. Hudson in particular is a highlight as Amy, the brow-beating girlfriend whose early hostility to Lou is possibly what stirs his resentment of women.

It's an intensely unlikeable film that's masterfully put together. As we delve into Lou's past and psychosis, our eyes are drawn to the lavish period detail, our ears to the utter dissonance of the soundtrack with what's going on in the story. I think it's in this that I was most reminded of two other films- American Psycho and No Country for Old Men. Given how the book existed long before either, you have to wonder if they drew from the protagonist and narrative of the novel, or if Winterbottom just recognised a familiar and proven way of telling a similar story.

The major quibble to raise with the film, aside from its uncompromising portrayal of violence, is with its pace. The film fills out almost 110 minutes with a languorous pace- a welcome break from the Boom Bang Wallop pace of other serial killer flicks. The friend I saw this film with declared it to be a pile of shit afterwards, because he was bored by it. I personally got entangled in its depravity and found it to be an intensely uncomfortable experience.

With source material that Stanley Kubrick once called "the most chilling and believable" that he had ever read, and an talent like Winterbottom at the helm, The Killer Inside Me is a genuinely disturbing thriller. The thrills may be scant on account of the pace, but those offended should realise that you're meant to be disturbed by the central character's actions. Being intrigued by this is no less valid than being amused by Killers. Present me one person who likes each film, and I'll tell you who I think is more unbalanced.

The Killer Inside Me is playing in selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Killer Inside Me and/or Killers, why not comment on the films or on my reviews below? If you heard Katherine Heigl saying Killers was "a great movie" at the premiere, be sure to get in contact with Trading Standards about false advertising, as I have.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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