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November 23, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | November 23, 2007 |

In spite of the dreaded “based on a video game” tagline that dogs Hitman, the truth is — it ain’t that bad. To the degree that French director Xavier Gens can recall his fellow countrymen’s treatment of the same subject: the lone wolf assassin who’s impeccable at killing and completely crippled in any emotional context; Melville’s Le Samourai and Besson’s (who produced here) Leon come most immediately to mind. To the extent that Gens evokes these films and explores their essential relationships, he succeeds; to the extent that he duplicates video game aesthetics, he merely entertains; to the extent that he tries to balance the two, he fails.

The credit sequence montage introduces us to an organization colorfully known as the Agency, which breeds, trains, and brands a troupe of peerless assassins-for-hire, each known by the barcode tattooed to their bald skulls. We then follow Agent 47 (Timothy Olyphant), as he perpetrates a few global assassinations, tracked unceasingly by an Interpol agent named Mike (Dougray Scott). After a high-profile assignment, eliminating the Russian president (Ulrich Thomsen), is apparently botched, 47 is set upon by the Russian Secret Service, Interpol, and his former employers.

The interesting parts of Hitman aren’t 47 unraveling the political conspiracy that set him up or the violence which punctuates his encounters with these opposing forces, but his interactions with Nika (Olga Kurylenko), a forced prostitute targeted for elimination by the same cabal on 47’s heels; he unwittingly gets stuck with Nika, strangely unable to kill or discard her as the situation dictates. The pair form an unlikely bond — Nika is weirdly allured to 47’s man-child, his immaculate proficiency as a killer and his complete haplessness to her sexual come-ons. It’s too bad that Olyphant can’t match this chemistry; in many ways, he was totally wrong for this role. I’ve seen Timothy Olyphant play a lot of things exceptionally well: rage, sleaziness, sheer sexual confidence; but 47’s enigma doesn’t really encompass these, and Olyphant doesn’t try to make them, merely peddling the rote emotions each situations calls for without the charisma necessary to make his performance compelling.

Aside from these all-too-brief flirtations, Hitman is, of course, an action piece above all else. These vignettes are interesting, if lacking in tension (the film makes no bones about 47 being completely invincible). I haven’t played the Eidos game, so I can’t testify to how fans will react, but many of the action sequences look like aesthetic nods to the source material. The film’s pace keeps things zipping along at an even-keel, save for the brief attempts at character development, but this is largely a paint-by-numbers, silly actioner. Too bad, because as strange as it sounds, Hitman does flirt with something more.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and does not give two shits about the Razorbacks.

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