It’s not always true that a great filmmaker can then make any movie he works on great. David Fincher is one of the best directors alive and has done pretty much everything there is to do. He’s coming off the one true curveball of his career, 2020’s nostalgic biopic Mank, and seems eager to get back to grittier stuff. That would be The Killer, an adaptation of Alexis Nolent’s graphic novel about a hitman and a job that goes awry. You’ve seen this plot a million times, and personally, as most readers of this site know, this is right in my wheelhouse. To have Fincher adding his stylish hand to this genre was incredibly exciting and with powerhouse actor Michael Fassbender in the lead? How could it not work?
Well, The Killer doesn’t work. It turns out that great filmmakers sometimes can’t elevate ho-hum material, and can sometimes even hinder it. If this were a movie directed by Luc Besson or one of his proteges like Pierre Morel or Olivier Megaton, it would’ve had the propulsive energy it so desperately needed. But Fincher dials it back to half-speed to focus on every minute, nihilistic detail in a desperate search for meaning. The film lumbers along and, while some of Fassbender’s unnamed assassin’s cynical musings are interesting on their own, they don’t amount to a lot when all is said and done.
What’s particularly frustrating is that the opening sequence, in which we watch the Killer’s neurotic attention to detail, is pretty damn cool. The best thing about hitman movies is getting absorbed into their world and their individual process, learning their moral code or lack thereof, etc. “Empathy is weakness. I serve no god or country,”, is the mantra of the day. We see the Killer waiting out the boredom of a long-delayed mission in an abandoned WeWork office in Paris. Why? Because you can’t trust AirBnBs anymore. Too many nanny cams! We see him doing yoga, sleeping upright, and bemoaning the lack of sleep that comes with waking himself up every hour to see if the target has finally arrived. He ventures down to the street, notes the number of McDonalds’ franchises in Paris, then orders an Egg McMuffin but removes the McMuffin. No carbs for this dude. Everything is meticulously done.
Fans of this genre already know what’s going to happen, and that it takes an excruciating amount of time to get there is just a precursor to the rest of the film which makes two hours feel like four. The target arrives, the Killer sets up a sniper shot that should be easy for a guy like him. But it misses and hits a civilian, leaving the Killer to scramble to clean up the mess. While he tries to explain it away, the botched job leads to his partner being assaulted to within an inch of her life. Now the Killer must exact revenge on everyone involved in her attack, and make sure they pay the ultimate price.
Yeah, that’s it. The bones of this story are something I quite respect. A simple revenge plot can be one of the most satisfying stories to tell because everyone can understand it and get behind it. Even in this case, where the Killer is amoral and has no qualms about murdering good people if that’s what the job calls for. We’re not asked to judge him at all, just to go along on his quest for vengeance. Fincher’s fingerprints are all over the place, from the use of shadows to the heavy employ of The Smiths to back the sounds of gunfire and physical damage. His obsession with capitalism and its impact on society is teased, tongue-in-cheek, by the abundance of product placement. There is an incredible hand-to-hand fight between the Killer and a massive assailant that reminds of the close-quarters brutality of Haywire, that most underrated Steven Soderbergh thriller led by a rookie Gina Carano. Short of that, though, The Killer doesn’t offer much beyond the familiar turns of an oft-told story. Even when Tilda Swinton arrives she doesn’t add anything in terms of a stand-out role or a quirky turn of phrase. She’s just another pit stop, and it serves to remind you that this movie could’ve been so much more than what it is.
The combo of Fincher, Fassbender, and a revenge arc is too good for The Killer to be an outright terrible movie. It’s definitely not. But when it’s over you can’t escape the feeling that it had the potential to be amazing, and instead, it just misses the target.
The Killer opens in select theaters on October 27th before Netflix streaming on November 10th.