Every month, there’s a handful of underwhelming action movies being released. Often, they star has-beens or never-quite-weres, who are saddled with stale conceits that have been better explored in flashier films with fancier names. Sometimes, we cover these movies, because they have that little something extra that makes us think maybe this won’t be as bland as it seems. Usually that something extra is a star who still shines bright enough to tickle our interest, dubious though it might be. Sadly, our benefit of the doubt is rarely rewarded, as Steven, Roxana, and I can attest. This time, it was Academy Award-winner Anthony Hopkins who was the lure, and The Virtuoso that was a tepid trap.
Directed by Nick Stagliano, The Virtuoso follows a world-weary and unnamed hitman (Anson Mount) on a curiously vague assignment. His handler (Hopkins) tells this self-proclaimed “virtuoso” of slaughter where and when the next hit is to happen, but only offers a clue to the target’s identity: “White Rivers.” So, the handsome and homicidal man saunters into a cozy diner in a sleepy town and immediately sizes up every sketchy dude inside. He must focus on his work, as it’s a “kill or be killed” gig. But who could resist the warm smile of the clairvoyant waitress (Abbie Cornish), who offers coffee and a one-night-stand with equal ease?
Smugly satisfied with itself, the screenplay teases “The Waitress” (as she’s credited) as a path away from the blood money, violence, and regret. What if he left this life-taking life behind? Though outwardly stoic, the Virtuoso is haunted by a hit gone wrong. The icy color palette of blues and greys explodes abruptly into flames and screams, “collateral damage” that led to a mother being burnt to a crisp in front of her young son. Repeated in intrusive flashbacks, this abrupt shift in tone is almost funny. It seems Stagliano is unaware that the familiar canned scream chosen for the flailing on-fire stuntperson might rip his audience right out of the grim Snyder aesthetic he’s sweatily copying, thrusting us into a barrage of garish B-movie violence. However, his anti-hero won’t be solely defined by this murderous mistake or an endless array of grimacing close-ups. Thus, the screenplay unleashes a relentless onslaught of voiceover, tediously explaining every rationalization and doubt that lumbers through the Virtuoso’s mind.
The dogged use of the voiceover device made me assume The Virtuoso was based on a novel, and that the screenwriter refused to kill the lines that inspired him to begin with. But nope! James C. Wolf wrote an original script that reads like a novel that should have been abandoned. For all that talking, the insights into the killer’s mind could be plucked from any number of war movies. His droning deductions play like Sam Spade rewritten by a bored sixth-grader. Hopkins is saddled with a grumbled monologue about the horrors of war that feels like a wonky ripoff of a Tarantino tirade. It’s a pitiful speech, and Hopkins seems on cruise control as he delivers the final, stinging kicker. Yet he is mesmerizing. This living legend could read the iTunes user agreement to me and I’d be riveted. However, his part is far too small to make The Virtuoso worth enduring.
Despite all the voiceover’s dogma about being cautious in kills, the Virtuoso barrels in on each of the three men he thinks might be White Rivers, and investigates in the slapdash manner of a puppy that hasn’t been housebroken, making a mess at every opportunity. The mystery target feels like no mystery at all, as there’s one suspect who seems SUPER OBVIOUS. Nonetheless, The Virtuoso blunders through a bloody plot and drags us along. The true target seemed so apparent from the start, I began to second-guess myself. I had to be wrong. There’s no way a screenplay with a “twist” this telegraphed would actually be made. Well, never underestimate the influence of mediocre men.
This is a committedly mediocre movie. The script reads like a rough draft that should be gathering dust. The execution lacks any originality, playing like a lazy mash-up of a slew of tawdry thrillers from the ’90s. The cast of characters is too small to spur any actual tension about its central mystery, and the characters themselves are too undefined to be remotely interesting. Talents like Hopkins, David Morse, and Eddie Marsan are wasted in brief appearances. Cornish is given little to do beyond play into sexist noir fantasies about damsels in distress, poured into dresses with buttons ready to burst at her bosoms. Finally, Anson Mount, who is in a bunch of TV shows I’ve never seen, offers all the screen presence of a lawn chair. Is this an uninspired comparison? Yeah. Because right now, I’m staring out my window to a destination I wish I’d spent the last two hours instead of watching the insipid, stupid, sexist slog that is The Virtuoso.
The Virtuoso comes to select theaters and VOD on April 30th; on Blu-ray and DVD May 4th.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Header Image Source: Lionsgate