Producers: William Doyle, Peter Mavromates and Cean Chaffin Director: David Fincher Screenplay: Andrew Kevin Walker Cast: Michael Fassbender, Arliss Howard, Charles Parnell, Gabriel Polanco, Kerry O’Malley, Emiliano Pernía, Sala Baker, Sophie Charlotte, Monique Ganderton, Endre Hules, Emiliano Pernía, Gabriel Polanco, Jack Kesy and Tilda Swinton Distributor: Netflix
The fact that it’s based on a comic book—sorry, graphic novel—perhaps explains why “The Killer” is as funny as it is. Or perhaps it’s just the bleak sense of humor with which director David Fincher chooses to depict the nameless, self-consciously anonymous-looking professional assassin played by with grim dispassion by Michael Fassbender, who takes up a mission of revenge after one of his assignments goes wrong.
After a furiously fast opening credits sequence that’s utterly misleading about the pace of the picture it introduces, the eponymous hit-man is presented playing a waiting game. He’s in a drab Paris office across from a palatial building, awaiting the arrival of his target—an otherwise anonymous wealthy man (Endre Hules) who’s reportedly coming to visit a dominatrix (Monique Ganderton). It’s a long wait, and our antihero consumes the time doing yoga, measuring his pulse rate, and thinking in reams of voiceover about his nihilist philosophy of life and his adherence to basic rules about doing his job, which come down to avoiding any emotional investment and perfect planning. The mantra we hear repeatedly in his narration, which persists throughout the movie, is “Anticipate, don’t improvise.” He also listens to his favorite band, The Smiths, on his ever-ready earbuds.
And yet when the time comes to shoot, he bypasses what appear to be good opportunities to fire (perhaps thinking his pulse rate is too high), muffs the job and misses, hitting the woman instead. Suddenly he’s on the run, jumping on a motorbike to escape the law, disposing of his equipment in sewers and garbage bins along the way and changing his clothes before boarding a plane out of the country. One of the running gags involves his one-time use of cell phones, which he crushes underfoot after a call; another is his employment of an apparently inexhaustible supply of credit cards bearing the names of characters from movies and TV. When Lou Grant shows up, it’s good for a chuckle.
But all his planning hasn’t extended to having a secure hideout. When he returns to his supposedly safe home in the Dominican Republic, he finds it’s been invaded and his live-in girlfriend Magdala (Sophie Charlotte) brutalized. Leaving her hospitalized in the care of her brother (Emiliano Pernía), he takes off after revenge. Though he remains impassive on the surface, his avoidance of emotion has clearly been jettisoned, though the depth of his relationship with Magdala is presumed rather than dramatized.
What follows is his single-minded pursuit of those responsible for the attack. He identifies and threatens a cabbie named Leo (Gabriel Polanco) who drove the intruders to his place, and then compels him to describe his passengers. He confronts Hodges (Charles Parnell), the lawyer who acts as his handler, and his secretary Dolores (Kerry O’Malley), who has the key to deciphering her employer’s coded (but old-fashioned paper) records. Then he goes after the odd-couple pair of assassins who invaded his hideaway: the aptly-named Brute (Sala Baker) and the fastidious, epicurean Expert (Tilda Swinton). Last on the list is the wealthy mogul Claybourne (Arliss Howard), who bankrolled the initial Paris assignment and then the clean-up mission against the Killer that automatically clicked into place after his initial failure.
In the course of his peregrinations examples of his meticulous, methodical approach vacillate with blunders that, like his original Parisian ineptitude, indicate that his approach to his job isn’t always well calibrated. He might be able to measure his pulse rate accurately, but he miscalculates on how long it will take a man to bleed to death, or how much sleeping powder will keep Brute’s guard dog from interfering in his plans. Even apart from that, he breaks his own rule by often acting on impulse—witness his treatment of Leo and Dolores, or the decision he makes about Claybourne, even after going through myriad obstacles to confront him—and his decision to go ahead with his invasion of Brute’s house, even though he must realize that the guy’s been tipped off and is ready for him (not to mention more than his physical match). And, of course, his entire revenge mission is at odds with the dark, cynical, emotion-free tenor of his continuing narration, in which glum witticisms only sporadically induce a smile. So is his willingness to off some people without a second thought, as opposed to his concern about not doing in a dog.
The inconsistencies in the character do make for some noteworthy set-pieces for Fincher, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, production designer Donald Graham Burt and editor Kirk Baxter, as well as the actors (and, presumably, stunt doubles), to demonstrate their varied skills. A lengthy brawl between the Killer and the Brute, made inevitable by the former’s foolishness, has a rowdy, kinetic energy genre fans will appreciate, and a tête-à-tête between the Killer and the Expert at an upscale restaurant makes little sense, but gives Swinton the opportunity to show off her hauteur in dialogue delivery (as well as a lovely gown designed by Cate Adams, which gleams in the snow).
“The Killer” is stylish and occasionally amusing, but it’s essentially a one-joke affair that Fincher and Fassbender are unable to sustain until the protagonist can resume a life of contentment in the Dominican sun.