Monday, September 13, 2010

Wild Target – Jonathan Lynn (2010)

When “Wild Target” opens up, we get an immediate feel for the film’s tone. The first scene is quick, well timed and very funny. Bill Nighy’s stuffy hit man walks into a hotel, we hear a man yell and fall to his death and the professional killer walks right back out, ready to get on with his day.

Okay, that is one unrealistically fast elevator, but mission accomplished. The comic timing of the scene is perfect and the first act of the film follows suit.

As a director, Jonathan Lynn is kind of hit or miss. His films seem to sink or swim depending on the strength of his material and his actors. That’s how he can turn out a film like “My Cousin Vinny” and then turn right around and crank out terrible movies like 1997’s wildly unfunny “Trial and Error” & the abysmal update of “Sgt. Bilko.”

Hell, even “Vinny,” which I think we can all agree is his best effort, is pretty uneven when you go back and watch it. It’s a solid comedy that could have easily been a classic farce in the hands of someone like Frank Oz, who would’ve been wise enough at least to have lightened up bits of it and trimmed off a good 15 minutes or so.

But I digress. (Hey, look, there’s a little mini-review of “My Cousin Vinny.” Okay, I’ll check that movie off my list of films to review.)

Let’s get back to “Wild Target.” I re-watched “Death at a Funeral” a couple of weeks ago, (the original, I still haven’t seen the American version) and I was in awe of Frank Oz’ timing. (Maybe that’s why I’ve mentioned him twice already.) I really think “Wild Target” had the potential to be something really special with a focused rewrite and a good director.

Thankfully, Lynn has the good sense to keep the film down around the 90-minute range and the script is paced reasonably well. And don’t get me wrong, Lynn is a good director. Just don’t expect anything he heads up to be great.

Bill Nighy is perfectly cast as a 54-year-old hit man, a lonely killing machine, who has no personal life except a bloodthirsty mother in a nursing home. As the film set up its premise and its characters, it filled me with hope.

The first couple hits have a dark hilarity, including a bit with a parrot who cleverly talks Nighy out of killing him.

And the introduction of Nighy’s mother, the lady who raised the straight-laced murderer and matriarch of the small killing-for-hire business is just a wonderful scene. The chemistry Nighy has with Eileen Atkins (best remembered from John Schlesinger’s overlooked 1995 charmer, “Cold Comfort Farm”) is wonderful.

Their casual, easy exchange is funny and chilling at the same time. Her gift of a scrapbook filled with the headlines of all of his hits, starting with his very first on page one with the gleaming headline, “Girl Garroted in Local Cinema.” And, as she tells him, as if he needed reminding, “Plenty of blank pages at the end, too.”

Of course, he has a gift for her, too. The parrot he let live. He needn’t have bothered let show the bird mercy. The woman’s locked up in a retirement home and she has to kill something. Or maybe that was his gift to her.

Some of the best scenes are when the old woman pops up, maniacally intent on killing someone, anyone.

The introduction to Emily Blunt and Rupert Grint’s characters are fantastic as well. Blunt rides through London on her bicycle like she hasn’t a care in the world, completely disregarding the convenience and safety of anyone else on the road. Of course this attitude toward the world in general predictably gets her into trouble.

Sadly, after her introduction, once the plot kicks in, her character settles into a vehicle to push the plot forward.

As for Grint’s Tony, we first meet him when he’s toking up in a parking garage when this whole world of hit men and thieves and unwitting victims explodes in front of him. He springs to action and Nighy finds the boy has the natural instincts and reflexes to be of some use.

And Grint is hilarious as Tony, who is amazed every single time he manages to perform some sort of unbelievable feat without even meaning to. There’s a scene, well into the second act when one of the thugs who’s after our trio is drowning a vulnerable and naked Rupert Grint in the bathtub and, before we can blink, Grint’s Tony has snatched the bad guy’s gun, jumped out of the tub and shoved the no-good-nick into his bath.

It happens so fast even Grint doesn’t even realize at first he’s suddenly got the upper hand.

The problem with Nighy’s idea of making Tony his apprentice is that while Tony has the reflexes and eerie natural skills, he has a conscience. Grint’s Tony is never going to be the kind of man who can kill strangers without remorse.

Even when he accidentally shoots off the ear of a bad guy in self defense, he’s hysterically apologetic. As he’s trying to get away with Nighy and Blunt, he keeps slowing down to explain to the guy chasing him that if he gets his ear on ice soon enough, he’ll be able to get it put back on at the hospital.

He stops to make this point three or four times.

Grint is hilarious.

As much as I’m sad to see one of the great franchises, Harry Potter (with the exception of the first two films, which sucked, rot in hell, Chris Columbus) come to a close, it’s really nice to see Rupert Grint free to work on other projects.

I watched “Cherrybomb” recently and Grint was surprisingly funny, intelligent and deep as the British answer to Michael Cera or Jason Biggs, but with just a bit more going on upstairs.

By the way, expect a review of “Cherrybomb” soon.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with farces that start with promise, once we’ve settled into the plot, the darkly funny moments become fewer and the film becomes a means to get to the end of the story.

There are sparks of brilliance, but they get rarer as the film drags on. And at a 90 minute run time, drag is not a flattering term.

It’s such a shame because the film showed so much potential. I’ve raved on about how much I loved the first half hour of the film for about three times as long I normally go for an entire review.

But once “Wild Target” settles into its formulaic plot, we’re just kind of sitting there waiting for the movie to end.

Nighy switches roles and acts as the girls bodyguard, going on the run with her and Grint while being tracked down by a different hit man hired to finish the job Nighy failed to carry out.

Don’t get me wrong.

There are brilliant moments scattered throughout, including a visit to the safe house from Nighy’s psychotic mother who somehow managed to escape from the retirement community long enough to come on out to the hideout and make a valiant effort at a good old-fashioned, fun-loving murder spree.
Nighy remarks that Dixon, the hit man hired to replace him and take the lot of them out is a “disgrace to the profession.” Unfortunately, Dixon-the-hit-man’s entrance is a disgrace to the film. Where Nighy’s killings and even unfortunate mistakes are darkly comic, Dixon’s are just dark, without a laugh or a jolt.

Even at Nighy’s hit/romantic leading man’s most nihilistic moments, he makes us chuckle. At one point, he follows his target through a crowd to a changing room and fires through the door. We hear a yelp and a thump as a body falls to the ground and, wouldn’t you know it, he looks over and sees his intended target walking off somewhere else. And that’s a hard day for whoever had the bad luck of changing clothes there that day.

But Nighy doesn’t give that a second thought and we really don’t either because it’s played out as a darkly light moment. Hell, it’s funny.

Dixon’s character is sadistic, uncharismatic, boring and sticks out of the film like a sore thumb. He’s both written and acted poorly and this movie deserved a better villain.

Like Nighy’s mother.

But for all its faults, it’s worth the 90 minutes, if not the 10 bucks and the extra drive you’ll most likely have to take to your town’s art house since “Wild Target” probably won’t be getting a wide release here in the U.S.

If nothing else, you’ll see the wonderful comedic potential Rupert Grint has when at last Ron Weasley is behind him.

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