French Hollywood gets it (mostly) right
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Hitman opens with a tasteful, minimalist credit sequence, a blue-hued montage of Agent 47’s gruesome childhood. As Ave Maria plays in the background, it cuts between white-on-black credits and flashes of a young 47 struggling through an assassin training camp. It suggests a more delicate film than you’d expect from something based on Hitman, the gallows-humoured assassin sim. The scene works really well.
Hitman is based on IO Interactive’s game series of the same name, whose most recent entry is last year’s Hitman 2. Released in 2007, the movie itself arrived not long after 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money, which is arguably the most beloved entry in the franchise.
If you know anything about the games at all, there isn’t much else to explain. The mysterious Agent 47 is a pale bald man with a barcode tattooed on the back of his head, who wears a black suit and red tie and, through his handler Diana, takes on assassination contracts for the just-as-mysterious Agency. Like Rampage, the Hitman series isn’t especially burdened with backstory or a convoluted origin story (though I’m sure it has one). It just works as a straight-forward concept.
The only part that’s irreplaceable is Agent 47 himself, being the most iconic thing in the series by a gigantic margin. Everything else can be rotated out without much of a difference but if there’s no Agent 47, it’s not really Hitman, is it?
After the opening lulls you into the fantasy that Hitman is a film film, one that matters, we cut to our first look at a full-grown Agent 47 in a very noir-like prologue. It’s night-time, it’s raining, and he’s pointing a pistol at a stranger like the opening of a Ray Bradbury novel. It’s odd for Hitman and already seems out-of-character; this is how a hardboiled private detective acts, not the comically-detached Agent 47. He drops one-liners sometimes, sure, but at the ironic expense of his target, not because he’s half in the bag and isn’t allowed to be a cop anymore.
Following this odd scene, we cut to “three months ago” and we’re treated to an arm sliced off with a machete and a man’s throat packed with explosives – yeah, Hitman really lays on the blood ‘n’ guts. Far more than the games ever have. It’s like the actors fit blood-filled Camelbaks under their white button-ups since every goon who is shot, stabbed or otherwise falls over explodes into a mess of viscous red. There’s even a part where Agent 47 snipes his target from half a city away and his head pops like that guy in Scanners, and the fact that his head literally explodes onto one of his bodyguards is integral to the plot.
After erasing the head of the Russian president Mikhail Belicoff (played by Ulrich Thomsen), Agent 47 finds himself on the run from the Agency itself. He ends up with Nika Boronina (played by Olga Kurylenko, who does a far better job with the material than most would have), a contact of Belicoff with clues on why 47 was betrayed. Meanwhile, Interpol detectives Whittier and Jenkins are finally cornering Agent 47 after years of hunting and the head of the Russian FSB, Yuri Marklov (Robert Knepper in another gaming crossover), moves to keep 47 and Nika from escaping Russia alive.
The film itself moves about as quickly as that last paragraph does, rushing along like a flashback montage. Otherwise, Hitman is a pretty competent action-thriller – it’s better than I expected, anyway. The main problem is Agent 47.
Here, 47 is played by the brown-eyed, Southern-accented Timothy Olyphant and he only ever seems wrong for the role. Compared to the crystal-eyed dry wit of the original games, Olyphant’s take is uncanny in how off it is. It doesn’t help that all I can see and hear is his characters from Deadwood and Justified.
Agent 47 is meant to be a mannequin, a hairless alien who’s physically predisposed to impersonating anyone. Olyphant plays him as physically methodical and stoic, which is perfect, but he always comes off as awkward and uncomfortable as well. He always looks confused. It suggests a more neurotic take on 47, which lines up with wanting a more vulnerable and movie-friendly version of the character – it just doesn’t quite work. He’s never especially compelling and he isn’t endearing at all, especially when he’s physically manhandling Nika in every other scene.
That brings me to the film’s central “romance” (though it’s more of an emotional bond, I suppose), which has aged so very terribly. I can’t imagine it played much better in 2007 but in 2019, the relationship between 47 and Nika is… unsettling, to say the least. Maybe it’s meant to be but even then: yeesh.
The relationship makes sense on one level. With Nika being an exploited and sexually-abused prostitute (yes, it’s that heavy), they connect emotionally in their need to escape the people who control them, but Agent 47 is always physically controlling, abusive or threatening himself whenever he interacts with Nika. 47 never shows any sort of sensitivity for almost the entire film, so this “romance” doesn’t really work.
I get that 47 is meant to be this emotionless robot, both here and in the games, but the whole point of an overarching bond between these two characters is to show that 47 still has his humanity buried under decades of programming and training. By the end, he ultimately doesn’t show any emotion or affection besides a dozen confused glances. You just end up feeling terrible for Nika and nothing for 47.
Eventually we discover that the Russian President actually had a body double and 47’s assassination and betrayal was an attempt by this double to usurp the presidency without a trace – and it’s actually a solid premise for a target in a Hitman game. There’s unclear motives, a compelling gimmick, and an underlying political influence. The idea of having to assassinate one of two doubles and needing to figure out which is which is perfect for a Hitman mission.
Just like the story, Hitman‘s action is a mixed bag.
First of all, there’s an extremely goofy and straight-up stupid action scene early on in the movie. There’s nothing else quite as silly but it’s so ridiculous that it drags the rest of the movie down into its stupid-ass muck – so I’m dedicating a chunk to explain it.
Agent 47 strolls into a train car with one of his Silverballers (a silenced silver-plated handgun from the games) drawn and aimed down the centre aisle. An Agency assassin emerges from one of the seats with his own gun drawn on 47. I guess he was waiting for him and forgot to hide? They approach each other until their pistols are pointed in the opposite person’s face, because that makes sense. 47 senses another assassin approaching from behind and draws a second pistol from his coat and aims. This second assassin has two pistols, one aimed at 47 and one aimed at the first assassin. Then a third assassin appears from the other side of the train car and does the exact same thing. At some point off-screen, the first assassin pulls out another pistol so he wouldn’t feel left out.
As far as I can tell, this makes no sense at all. Why they would be competing or otherwise be against each other? Isn’t Agent 47 the loose end that the Agency needs snuffed out? How are there more than two sides to this conflict?
All four bald people sidle up within an arm’s distance of each other with all their pistols out in the open, forming a neat square-shaped stand-off. Agent 47 says something about “dignity”, they all nod, and then they all drop the magazines from their eight pistols in complete unison. They toss their bullet-less pistols to the floor.
Then, as if they’d rehearsed all of this ahead of time, all four assassins unsheathe a pair of short katana blades from their backs at the exact same time. They hold each blade out in front and on top of each other, like they’re the Mighty Ducks stacking their hands. What? Why is this happening?
Four professional assassins, eight silenced pistols, eight short katana blades, all slowly unveiled like they’re in an edgy conceptual dance number. It’s so incredibly strange on its own but it’s even worse because, besides this, Hitman mostly resembles the games. There’s nothing really out of place besides Olyphant and a couple of big shootouts – but an agreed-upon martial arts showdown with katanas they slide out from their backs? Where’d that come from? What if they needed to bend over?
Aside from that otherwise-solid action scene (it’s hard not to enjoy it), Hitman is remarkably accurate to the games for a film adaptation.
47 booby-traps his hotel door with a mine; he hides and later retrieves his pair of pistols from the hotel icebox; he sneaks poison into his target’s scotch so he can corner them in the bathroom as they’re vomiting; and he disguises himself as a train station security guard and a bodyguard to either escape or close the distance to his target. In a torture scene later in the film, there’s even a yellow rubber duck dropped into a torture bathtub (which didn’t make much sense but let’s just roll with it).
The whole movie actually reminded me a lot of 2012’s Hitman Absolution in how action-oriented and streamlined towards spectacle it was. It still feels like Hitman but, like Absolution, not quite.
Considering its dreadful reputation, I expected worse from the (first) Hitman movie. On its own, it’s a competent action-thriller. Not great but hardly terrible.
As an adaptation of the Hitman series, it’s pretty on-point. The only real faults with it is the almost total lack of humour – which is central to the games and a bummer to drop entirely – and casting Olyphant as Agent 47. It’s clearly an intentional and creative decision in this portrayal, but even understanding that, I can’t get past it. He just… sucks. And I love Olyphant. I’m glad he got paid well, though.
Maybe Rupert Friend was a better Agent 47? I guess we’ll find out next time.
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Also published on Medium.