Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Notes From a Critic at Large (Part Two)

Along with some of the forgettable pictures I mentioned yesterday, there was one riveting movie I did catch up with in recent months – and it never turned up in a theatre. Killshot (2008) is a tip-top crime thriller featuring Mickey Rourke in the role in which he should have been acclaimed.

As good as Rourke was in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008), the picture was shaped around our knowledge of the damage Rourke did to his career after the promise he displayed; first in a small role as an arsonist in Body Heat (1981), and then in a major part in Barry Levinson’s autobiographical Diner (1982). After showing some of the flair of Brando, with his soft machismo and sweet charm, Rourke (to paraphrase Brando in On the Waterfront) quickly took a one-way ticket to Palookaville. Leading a life of excess and self-destruction, Rourke’s career basically took a header. The Wrestler was his unapologetic calling card for redemption, a celebrated comeback, and he delivered a touching and bruising performance as a man making amends with what little he had left. But his life flooded into that performance to such a degree that you couldn’t really separate the actor from the man. (Brando had done a similar thing in Last Tango in Paris but he used that role to examine the nature of masculine aggression that he had so dramatically defined early in his career. In The Wrestler, Aronofsky’s redemption story confined Rourke, who could only trace the lines of a promised life now gutted.)

But in John Madden’s Killshot, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1989 novel, Rourke doesn’t have the autobiographical baggage he had to carry in The Wrestler. Playing Blackbird, a hitman for the Toronto mob, he has spent his career regretting the accidental murder of his brother during a job, a murder he sees as his failing to protect him. Now he's a man who lives only to do his job and he takes on assignments with a quiet resignation. When a real estate agent, Wayne Colson (Thomas Jane) and his wife, Carmen (Diane Lane), witness Blackbird carrying out a crime, they end up pursued by a man whose livelihood is all about leaving no loose ends. In Killshot, Rourke creates an ominous quiet as Blackbird, a sense that life hasn't dealt him a fair deck of cards, but he’ll play what he has with a fatalism that shows no mercy. But it doesn’t leave him dispassionate. He takes on a partner, Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hayseed psychopath who enjoys being a criminal, because he mistakenly believes he's like the brother he lost. And Blackbird wrongly assumes that he can mentor Nix as a way of re-writing the tragic fate of his late sibling. If Rourke provides a quiet space, Gordon-Levitt is a bolt of lightning, jolting the screen with bursts of maniacal enthusiasm. His performance is a beautifully sustained chorus of hysteria. It takes Blackbird a long time to see that Nix isn’t the brother he was hoping for and his manner of dealing with that realization is a corker.

Diane Lane and Thomas Jane

As fine as Rourke is, he isn’t the whole movie. Diane Lane continues to be one of the most underappreciated actresses who continue to etch finely drawn character parts. (She brought a wistful touch of human regret to the otherwise unbearably creepy 2008 horror thriller Untraceable.) Lane plays a woman whose marriage isn’t all she hoped it would be and Rourke’s hitman, when he eventually holds her hostage, understands her weakness. Thomas Jane, usually an actor with an appetite for blandness, gives his first really substantial bit of acting as a man who clearly loves his wife but might not live long enough to convince her. Killshot also brings to life John Madden, otherwise known for the tepid Shakespeare in Love and the inert Proof, and he never once resorts to maudlin sentiment. (A goodbye scene between Nix and his Elvis-obsessed girlfriend – an exuberant Rosario Dawson – puts a catch in your throat.)

Unfortunately, Killshot had its share of bad luck. Miramax Films had optioned Leonard’s novel back in 1997, but didn’t get around to developing the film until 2004. After a year of casting hassles, John Madden was hired to start shooting in Toronto in the fall of 2005 (as well as Cape Girardeau along the Mississippi River). By Christmas 2006, the film was completed, but test-market screenings with audiences proved fatal as viewers found the story too obtuse. As a result, the picture got delayed as cuts were made pushing the release to March 2006, but delays continued until it was finally dumped onto DVD in May, 2009.

Killshot reveals the flaws of some of those cuts as certain parts of the narrative, especially the move of the couple into witness protection, seem rushed and fails to establish fully the deep-seated problems of their marriage. But the fractured story-telling is mostly compensated for by the underlying theme of the picture and the actors who inhabit their parts. Killshot is a noir where fate and intent come to face-off. And the showdown is a beauty.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you thank you thank you. I accidentally caught this movie on the dish last week and fell right into it. Great stuff - then I read some reviews of it and they were almost all negative. What? Why? Joseph Gordon-Levitt has left "Third Rock" behind - his Richie Nix was brutal, scary, and believable. Great writeup on a great movie.