Monday 13 November 2023

The Killer (review)

Today I went to the cinema, which is something I haven't done in quite a while. What tempted me back to the big screen? David Fincher's latest movie, The Killer. Was it worth seeing in a movie theatre? Not really. The action was fine, but would look just as good on a decent TV. Were the performances any good? Oh yes. Michael Fassbender is always great value. He should have been picked to play James Bond -- though admittedly he'd be too interesting an actor for the anodyne superhero that Bond has become. The scene with Tilda Swinton is worth the price of admission. But the plotting. Oh dear. 

I'll talk about it because somebody has to care whether stories make any sense. You must expect spoilers from this point on, OK?

The Killer is a seasoned professional hitman with a string of successful and lucrative assassinations behind him, but he misses a shot on his latest target. Which is inconvenient, as the target is now alerted and it will be a while before there’ll be any chance of a follow-up attempt.

Unknown to the Killer, his handler, Hodges, proposes to the client that he can have the Killer whacked for another 150k. Why kill the golden goose? Don’t know. Why would Hodges think that the Killer would blab after one slip-up? Don’t know. How would the client (just a rich business dude) ever know whether his 150k had actually been spent on rubbing out the Killer? He wouldn't, so why pay?

Hodges hires two other assassins, the Expert and the Brute. It looks like all you need to know is in the names, except (as we will find out) they are fairly useless, which makes it surprising that Hodges is so blasé about writing off his star performer. They also haven’t worked together before, which would be a danger signal in many professions where the stakes are considerably lower than in assassination.

Hodges sends them to the Killer’s isolated jungle home in the Dominican Republic, though he must realize the Killer won’t be back there yet. They find Magdala, the Killer’s girlfriend, and torture her for information. Why doesn’t Hodges just give them this information? Don’t know. Why not wait at the house to ambush the Killer when he comes back? Don’t know.

They leave Magdala alive. Why? Ah, this one I do know – it’s because otherwise the writer couldn’t give the Killer the clues he needs to find the assassins. He tracks them via the taxi company who took them to the house. Why didn’t they hire a car? Why did they leave the taxi driver alive? How did Magda get a look at the taxi from hundreds of yards away through a jungle? You got me.

The Killer now realizes Hodges hired the two assassins. He goes and kills him and gets info about the two assassins from Hodges’ secretary, whom he kills. (Unlike the Expert, he leaves no loose ends.) Meanwhile, you may ask, isn’t he in jeopardy from the Expert and the Brute, who have been hired to kill him? No, because having beaten up the Killer’s girlfriend and trashed his house, they went back to their homes and are now making no effort to look for him. This is convenient as it means that the Killer can track them down separately and kill them.

After some more shenanigans involving the client who hired him in the first place, the Killer retires with all the money he’s made in his long and lucrative career. Does he have to create a new identity and set up a new home in a distant corner of the world? Not a bit of it. He goes back to his house in the Dominican Republic, a place which has been compromised and might well now be known to other assassins, and relaxes on a sun lounger.

What might have happened after the missed shot: Hodges could say to the Killer that they either owed the client a hit and would have to follow-up despite the increased security, or they could hand the money back. The former would make a story, but it wouldn’t have the betrayal trope vital to lazy storytellers in this genre. If Hodges really decided that the Killer was now useless, he should have hired competent assassins, briefed them properly, and laid low till they reported the Killer was dealt with. It didn't matter to the client, certainly, who could have been told that the Killer had been iced and would have believed it.

Why was this plot such a mess? I suspect because it’s based on a graphic novel by a videogame writer, both mediums being stronger on style than on substance or on coherent storytelling. Why wasn’t the plotting fixed by Andrew Kevin Walker, a screenwriter with a number of hits to his name, and David Fincher, who ought to be able by now to tell if story elements make no sense? Don’t know, but it may be because they no longer expect audiences to bother to question what they’re seeing on screen. If plots are only going to be skin-deep, no wonder screenwriters are worried about being replaced by AI.


  1. Absolutely spot on...and I haven't seen the film! So many 'franchises' are like this, think Statham, Neeson, Cruise. My 35 year old son has a family, a full time job and loves gaming as do so many of his generation. I wonder if they watch differently from me and miss the basic interior logic...or it doesn't matter to them? ~Norman

    1. Ben Affleck tells the story of when he tried to point out the plot inconsistencies in the movie Armageddon, only to be told "shut up" by Bruce Willis, who knew that the story made no sense but must have decided that the audience wouldn't notice or care.

  2. The movie is an interesting study in the development process. I imagine it began with the idea of an accomplished expert who has come to rely on his own efficiency, and the effect on him of missing a target (precisely what the term hamartia from Greek tragedy actually means, in fact). That one single slip should ripple out to cause huge changes in his world.

    The snag is, that would make a great character study but this is a movie, so instead of interiority the writer has to build it around plot. That could still work with enough ingenuity and originality to construct a surprising plot. Unfortunately instead we got the John Wick plot with a girlfriend (beaten) in place of a dog (killed). The only remaining trace of the original concept was that the Killer undergoes change in the course of getting his revenge, a Scriptwriting 101 arc in which he goes from imagining he's a dispassionate outsider to admitting he's as emotionally driven as the next guy. Heartwarming stuff, I'm sure you'll agree.

  3. Late to the party, but I didn't think The Killer was too bad in terms of plot holes. For example, just the first two points you bring up:
    The Killer gets spooked on his flight back home, so books a new flight delaying him by 24hrs. The 'clean-up' crew were expecting him to be home, and when he isn't there (and the housekeeper is none-the-wiser) they presume they have been made and he has disappeared, and will now be impossible to find. Hence they flag the operation as a bust and go home.
    The fact that he doesn't disappear once he realises what has happened (despite his introductory monologue suggesting otherwise) is the core theme of the movie.

    1. Fair enough about the delayed flight, though why they then just give up (and why they don't kill his girlfriend/housekeeper and the taxi driver) is harder to account for. Or even why his handler/manager hired them in the first place. And why didn't they stake out the place, instead of charging straight in? "He's not here at the exact minute we expected." "Oh, well he must be in the wind, then." My PCs plan their hits better than that.

      The theme would be difficult to miss, as it's double-underlined in almost every scene. He learns that he's not a stone-cold killer after all, but a rather hot-blooded one. We pretty much see that coming from the start, though, right? At least from the point where he talks to the housekeeper-with-benefits in the hospital. It's why everybody else does what they do that I think makes less sense.