Monday, November 06, 2023

Murderers' Missions: The Killer '23 and Bad Blood

I didn't necessarily plan this as a double feature, but the previous week's jury duty kind of clobbered me, or the commute did, and I wasn't even making much attempt to get out of the recliner until late Saturday. But, it's not like either of these movies are going to be around long - The Killer is from Netflix, and there's an eyebrow raised when one of those gets a second week Bad Blood is from Vietnam, and I was mildly surprised to see it playing Boston Common as well as South Bay, where the Vietnamese movies usually show up. Maybe they thought it would draw some more of us kung fu fans? At any rate, it looked like it was just me when the movie was close to starting.

Still, it's a natural-enough, with two people who are very good at violence tracking down the people who hurt their families, although the vibes are very different, with The Killer saying right off that you've got to be patient and then demonstrating, while Bad Blood has immediate machete violence. These movies are two sides of the same coin in many ways, and together a bit of a Rorschach Test in terms of what you may consider important in your crime flicks: The Killer is fancyish, kind of arch, maybe not quite as clever as it thinks it is (though probably smarter than I initially thought it was); Bad Blood is direct and pretty much maxes out "action" at the expense of everything else. I had more fun with Bad Blood that afternoon; though I'll probably talk about The Killer more over the next however many years.

Surprisingly, considering I saw them a week ago, both are still kicking around theaters: The Killer got held over at both Boston Common and the Coolidge, which may well keep it around for 9:30pm shows in the Screening Room until their Fincher midnights finish; Bad Blood is at South Bay, which I suspect has a decent Vietnamese immigrant population nearby.

The Killer '23

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2023 in Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run, DCP)

The Killer is absolutely a "David Fincher film that Netflix also puts in a few theaters" situation: The film is impressively shot, meticulous in its construction, and all that good stuff, but there is also seldom much going on that's really essential; you can fold your laundry or screw around on your phone until some bit of character acting breaks through to grab your notice, and you pay full attention for the next five or ten minutes until Michael Fassbender murders that character. Then repeat; it's divided into chapters if you can't do a full (almost) two-hour movie at once.

It starts with Fassbender's multi-named Killer on a job in Paris, staking out an apartment that he knows his target will eventually return to, narrating how patience is paramount, talking about the lengths he goes to be invisible, and how not everybody is cut out for this sort of thing. But when the moment comes, his shot misses the target, and he must quickly abandon the job. Arriving at his isolated home in the Dominican Republic, he discovers that his employers have already made arrangements to eliminate him, but struck too fast, when only his girlfriend (Sophie Charlotte) was home. So, what to do, but work his way up the ladder, paying visits to the law professor who recruited him as an assassin back in college (Charles Parnell), the team sent to dispatch him (Sala Baker & Tilda Swinton), and the client (Arliss Howard).

That it seems built for how people consume Netflix rather than theaters isn't exactly me saying it's bad, so much as it's Fincher working in his chosen medium and trying to get the most out of it. Those bits of character acting, more or less building up to Tilda Swinton's piece are quite enjoyable, and even if half the point of the opening is to try the audience's patience so that they understand that, yes, this work does require enduring boredom and not cracking through lack of patience, the use of Rear Window framing is at least a little fun. Even when this guy is at his most detached, he is good enough at his job to be interesting to watch (and, yeah, I kind of think that applies to Fincher, Fassbender, and the Killer, which is why they all connect to this project and wind up on the same wavelength).

Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (working from the bande dessiné by Alexis Nolent & Luc Jacamon) gives Fincher and Fassbender plenty of fun material to chew on; it is certainly entertaining to hear his misanthropic monologues in voice-over, and you can certainly see how this brace of enjoyable actors - Charles Parnell, Kerry O'Malley, Arliss Howard, and Tilda Swinton, most notably - signed on; it's a script they can chew on for however many days they're on set. Fincher can stage the heck out of an action sequence, too, though one in near-darkness is probably going to be brutalized by compression algorithms once it hits its forever home on the streaming service.

If you want to be generous, I suppose you could posit that the whole thing is a satire: Right from the start, Fassbender is presenting the image of the cool, methodical assassin who lives outside the rules, but the whole thing is built around how he basically screws up at the crucial moment - Fincher and director of photography Erik Messerschmidt are careful to show how, after working hard to make sure he has a clear shot and how he knows he will only have one, he instead kills a bystander. As he flies from location to location, he uses a series of fake identities taken from famous sitcom characters, which is not exactly him being memorable. It's just in-your-face enough to arguably be about undermining the mystique of these characters - if you've ever watched the John Wick movies and wondered if there are really enough murders of this sort for it to be a whole underground economy, Fincher and Waller may be on your wavelength - but if so, it's the sort of satire that perhaps doesn't do enough separate itself from the thing it's sending up. Fassbender and Swinton, for instance, fit the template too well. In other moments, it seems like he's reaching for something but can't quite get there, like there should be some commentary on how the title character can hang out in this WeWork space that's under construction for a couple weeks without being noticed, but it doesn't resolve into anything.

Still, I'm not sure this movie actually draws a reaction until the epilogue. A flinch and narration where the title character thinks he understands something - but probably doesn't, but in the way a non-psychopath does - is actually interesting, for a moment, but then the movie is done. It's fine, better than this sort of hitman movie made by less talented people, but maybe a bit too muted.

Ke an Danh (Bad Blood)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2023 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, DCP)

This is some pretty classic old-school martial arts action here - more or less every beat goes as expected based on the Taken template, but the action is darn solid in terms of being quick and brutal but easy to follow while also doing things like putting its hero against various modern art installations. It delivers what it promises and with style.

It opens with Lam (Kieu Minh Tuan) as a young man, having just seen his family killed and quite capable on avenging them as he storms the home of crime boss "Scarface" along with a whole mess of minions, but he takes the dying gangster's words that he'll continue to lose those he loves if he continues to be a killer to heart, and twenty years later, he's living a quiet life, poor, but mostly happy with wife Hanh (Van Trang) and stepdaughter Tien (Thua Tuan Anh), even if doing day labor occasionally gets him involved in jobs like helping Lu (Mac Van Khoa) and his company of "movers" who have not exactly been hired by an apartment's residents. One night Tien does not come home from a job interview in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, so he starts nosing around.

From there, you kind of know the deal - the young punks of the area do not have any idea what kind of guy is living in their midst, there's an ongoing investigation that doesn't need some lone wolf getting involved, and maybe he still has some friends from the old days. If it diverges from the path laid down by a few dozen movies with the same basic story, it's maybe because one can forget just what a mean streak this genre can have when stringing together action sequences is more the aim than, say, validating the father's pride and worth, as well as a the need for the police to not look entirely like they need vigilantes to do their work. Writer/director Dan Trong Tran knows the movie he's making, and if it means not messing around that much between fights or having a villain merry-go-round that keeps Lam from actually having an opposite number (the film kind of settles on Quoc Truong's art enthusiast), well, that's not really important.

What's important, obviously, is the action, and that's solid as heck; there's been good action coming out of Vietnam for 15 years or so, and while it's Dan Trong Tran's first film as writer/director (he has mostly produced for director Le-Van Kiet), he's got a decent eye and a solid action director in Kefi Abrikh; between the hard hits and the inventiveness of some of the settings, they manage to evoke the sort of Hong Kong pre-handover vibe intended. The movie is probably also a notch or two better than most at genuinely convincing the audience that this guy, underworld legend that he may have been at one point, is in fact 20 years past his prime and out of practice. He recovers soon enough, sure, but he also spends a lot of time getting the crap beat out of him. There's much less ego than usual here.

I must admit, though, that I'm mildly disappointed they didn't come back around to reference constipated civet-poop coffee that one character serves another early on, perhaps as a reassurance that the daughter will be stronger for having gone through this. That would be the sort of dorkily-earnest but kind of messed-up bit that would really cement Bad Blood as that sort of classic "great fights, weird elsewhere" movie.

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