TV loves doctors and lawyers; movies love professional killers. Just ask Jean-Pierre Melville. Or better yet, ask David Fincher, whose new movie, The Killer, is a sleek distillation of hitman clichés, smoothed into a relentlessly forward-moving two hours. The Netflix original kicked off the grand reopening of the Egyptian Theatre, Hollywood’s 101-year-old movie palace that had been recently purchased and beautifully restored by the streaming giant. It is now available on the platform and a few select theaters.
Based on a series of French comic books by illustrator Luc Jacamon and writer Alexis “Matz” Nolent, The Killer stars Michael Fassbender as a high-end assassin whose sardonic, repetitious interior narration provides a pipeline into his cynical thought life. The nameless protagonist, whose fake identities are named after TV characters (Felix Unger, Sam Malone, George Jefferson), is introduced on an abandoned floor of a Paris building listening to the Smiths as he waits for his target to arrive across the street. He claims never to have missed a shot, and when he botches the job, he is just as surprised as the audience. (“Well, this is new.”) He rushes back to his hideout in the Dominican Republic to find his girlfriend beaten within an inch of her life and recovering in the hospital. Her brother is able to offer a vague description of the assailants. From there, he sets out on their trail with revenge in mind.
On the whole, The Killer is slightly less clever than it thinks it is. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script features some genuine bon mots and quite a few clunkers, all localized behind the protagonist’s eye sockets. The main problem is its ambivalence toward the main character, whose POV we are forced to share. It’s as if the movie can’t decide whether it wants to be John Wick or American Psycho, and splits the difference. The maxims that rattle around in the killer’s head tax the audience’s ears relentlessly. (“Forbid empathy. Empathy is weakness.”) But they offer little insight into what is essentially a flimsy comic book character with no backstory and no identity outside the diegesis of the movie.
Those tensions are largely overridden by Fincher’s absolute dedication to the material, which yields two hours of clean, process-oriented filmmaking. While it occasionally veers into self-parody, Fincher betrays no embarrassment over any of it. Patient viewers are treated, at about the halfway point, to a bravura knock-down, drag-out fight in a dimly lit house — a scene destined to become an immortal cinematic set piece. The rest of the picture — subdued but not draggy — never rises to that same level of excitement again. And, just when things seem to be winding down, Tilda Swinton turns up as another professional killer who knows her time is up.
The movie is elevated by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt’s meticulous, low-key lighting schemes and Ren Klyce’s imaginative sound design, which invents some frisky interplay between the hero’s thoughts and the world outside of them. Such craftsmanship doesn’t quite raise The Killer to the level of art, but in a sea of streaming options, it creates an island of pleasure, however fleeting.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.