Movie Review: Hitman: Agent 47 (2015)

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As far as mid-tier action movies go, Hitman: Agent 47 is a reasonably entertaining film, if you enter with low expectations. As far as video game movies go, it’s pretty okay, considering nearly every movie adapted from a video game that’s not Mortal Kombat was pretty bad. In any case, it definitely feels like an improvement over the previous Hitman movie from 2007 starring Timothy Olyphant.

Like the 2007 film, Hitman: Agent 47 recreates a lot of imagery from the marketing campaign of the games, but uses very little of the games’ story.

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Instead the script written by Skip Woods and Michael Finch builds an original story that could have served any generic action-thriller. At best, the film only shares superficial similarities to the game, such the use 47’s iconic poses and visual design, and a story involving genetically-engineered clones with superhuman abilities. But that’s about as far as the similarity goes. Nevertheless it was interesting to see this film as an origin story for Katia van Dees, a new character written for the movie.

Katia is a young woman who seems to have special abilities such has heightened senses and intelligence. We first meet her in Berlin where she tries to find a man. She doesn’t know who this man is exactly, but she knows his height, weight and build. (This part was vague and wasn’t explained in the movie.) Eventually the man was revealed to be Dr. Litvenko, who is the scientist who created Agent 47 and other genetically-engineered clones. Also looking for Litvenko is an evil organisation known as the Syndicate. (Very original, guys. Taking villain names from Mission: Impossible.) For some reason, they try to do that by following Katia hoping she would lead them to Litvenko. Agent 47 (Rupert Friend) is tasked by another agency to kill her, but if you have seen the trailers and the posters, he doesn’t and decides to help her instead.

To be honest the plot probably didn’t matter since many parts of it doesn’t make sense. The world-building wasn’t executed very well, and most of it was in the form of an voice-over exposition at the start of the movie. It wasn’t clear why the Syndicate chose to focus on Katia so much instead of finding Litvenko on their own, since clearly the organisation clearly has more progress in the search than Katia ever did. And yet despite focusing all their effort on Katia, they weren’t aware of her abilities.

Despite the problematic writing, the film was firmly supported by the great performances of the two lead actors. In the trailers and posters, Friend didn’t look right for Agent 47 but it worked for the most part within the movie. For fans of the game, it helps to actually forget that you’re watching a Hitman movie, lest you keep wondering how David Bateson might do in the role. Agent 47’s character is somewhat blank and lacks personality, but he is meant to be a cold, emotionless assassin. He is, after all, originally a video game playable character, which many are blank slates by design. But even for an emotionless robot-like character 47 was not very well-written. His motivations are unclear for almost the entire movie, and the reason why he decides to help Katia was never satisfactorily explained.

I did like Katia’s character, one who was written specifically for the movie. Although not fleshed out as well as I hoped, she is the person we get to know best in the movie. She has some interesting character traits I wished was explored more, like the fact that she likes to take things apart and places the components in a very neat array. Through the course of the story she struggles with her identity and questions 47’s humanity, albeit in very clunky dialogue. (Katia bluntly asks 47, “are you human?”) We do get to see her evolve from a vulnerable girl-on-the-run to a badass assassin on par with 47. I just wished that the writing could have been better, as it might be viewed as a origin story for Katia the assassin.

The writing is definitely my least favourite aspect of the movie. The writer Skip Woods who wrote X-Men: Origins, A Good Day to Die Hard, and Swordfish The second writing credit is Michael Finch who wrote November Man. The dialogue is pretty flat and straightforward. More often than not it serves only to move the plot forward. Sometimes, the dialogue do attempt to explore character moments, but was done with the bluntness and subtlety of a jackhammer.  The “are you human” line probably serves as the movie’s version of the debate regarding the ethics and philosophy of human genetic engineering.

Nevertheless some interesting themes could be glimpsed within the characters. There is an undercurrent of a “nature vs. nurture” conflict that goes on between Katia and 47. Throughout the story 47 tries to make Katia accept herself to be the genetically-engineered super (non-)human that she’s born to be, while Katia counters with a paraphrase from Batman Begins (“what we do makes us who we are” — I warned you about the dialogue).

As in the 2007 movie, this film differs most from the game in terms of the tone. Dark humour is a big part of the Hitman games, but all humour was completely absent here. It. There were no one-liners or jokes. Everything was played completely straight. Even the dialogue which was utterly predictable for most of the movie, didn’t play a joke for a scene which I totally expected one. There were other times some strange, out-of-place line was delivered it was probably difficult to tell whether it was meant to be a joke. Since this is related to the Hitman franchise, there needs to be reference to rubber ducks, which is  an in-joke from the games. In the movie, however, they essentially just recreated this image from the Blood Money marketing campaign devoid of any context:

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The movie primarily takes place in Berlin and Singapore, though it feels that swapping out these two cities with any other places wouldn’t have affected the plot in any way. There were no German or Singaporean characters with any spoken lines, with the exception of a German woman who had a long conversation with Katia (thus nearly passing the Bechdel test, but technically not quite).  The scene in which the characters performs a Sherlock-style `deduction’ that leads them to Singapore would be very hilarious to Singaporeans. The dialogue just consists of them listing generic brochure-type information about the country, at the same time it’s supposed to be character-related crucial information!

The action scenes were directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the directors of John Wick. You could even see some of John-Wick-type moves during the fight scenes, which looks pretty good at times, but was riddled with too much close-ups and editing. Again, it helps to forget that you’re watching a Hitman, which was, after all, a stealth game and 47 is supposed to be a SILENT ASSASSIN.

There was some sequel-bait at the end of the movie, and even a very short Marvel-style post-credit scene. While I felt pretty entertained while watching the movie, it’s not a great movie by any measure. And I’m probably not looking forward to another one. I did like Rupert Friend and Hannah Ware, though. I’ll probably be excited if the sequel was written and directed by someone better. Perhaps Lexi Alexander? She directed Punisher: War Zone which had the similar type of humour that would work with a Hitman adaptation.

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