The 90s are back! If you remember the days of wisecracking psychopaths, ultraviolence and pointlessly twisty plots, then…well, you’ll have probably seen this years ago, as we here at the ISCFC may do many things, but reviewing movies in a timely fashion is not one of them. Bearing extreme similarities to 90s comic “Button Man”, and vaguer ones to movies “The Condemned”, “Mean Guns”, “Battle Royale” and “Series 7: The Contenders”, it feels like a script which was left on the shelf for 10 years, or perhaps just written, directed and paid for by emotionally stunted man-children.
Every 7 years, there’s a big tournament to decide who’s the best assassin around, and 30 of them are assembled in some unsuspecting town and set loose, with nothing but an implanted tracker and a case full of weapons. CCTV cameras are taken over, emergency phone lines are diverted, and the world’s wealthiest people come to gamble on the outcome because, you know, normal entertainment just doesn’t cut it any more when you have a lot of money. Apart from a brief flashback to the previous tournament, the entirety of this movie takes place in the small northern town of Middlesbrough, which may well be the first time it’s ever appeared on the big screen.
The cast is the thing which will have you maybe wondering if you should pay attention to it or not. The champion of the previous tournament, returning as one of the other assassins killed his wife, is Ving Rhames as “Joshua Harlow”; then you’ve got Kelly Hu as “Lai Lai Zhen”, Ian Somerhalder as “Miles Slade”, and Scott Adkins (“Ninja”, “The Expendables 2”) as “Yuri Petrov”. “Powers”, the fellow organising the whole shebang, is Game Of Thrones’ very own Liam Cunningham, and one of his assistants, “Tech Eddie”, is Andy Nyman, last seen by us in the classic “Severance”. Rounding out the cast, playing a local Vicar who gets rather unfortunately caught up in events, is Robert Carlyle! Now, I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a hell of a cast for a movie I’d never heard of before this morning; no huge names, but a lot of people who individually could headline any B-movie, or provide solid back-up in a big-budget one.
There’s not a ton of plot, really, as you might expect, with the tension coming from Rhames’ attempt to figure out who killed his wife and why. When the French parkour assassin removes his tracker and gets the Vicar to accidentally swallow it, that puts him on the “leader board”, and Hu is forced to protect him while he waits for the tracker to work its way out of his system. The big twist in this tournament is, if more than two assassins are left alive at the end of the 24 hour time limit, they both get blown up thanks to the trackers having an explosive in them.
They really want you to know how violent it would be if 30 assassins were all set loose on each other in a normal town. Somerhalder (who, spoiler alert, kills a dog, if that’s the sort of thing which puts you off a movie) is the most gleeful of the murderers, but everyone blows up at least one person, or gets blown up themselves, shotguns are fired into heads at point blank range, and folks get run over by trucks and buses, with gore being liberally flung round the screen. While it’s not especially graphic, it might turn a stomach or two.
They also really want you to know exactly what you’re supposed to think at every moment. It’s got the extremely annoying habit of cutting to Powers, then to Tech Eddie, every time something interesting or violent is about to happen, with Powers telling the assembled gamblers what they can clearly see on the hundred monitors in front of them, then Tech Eddie and his mate giving a dumb running commentary – like when you see someone get kicked in the balls and then you’ll cut to some bloke saying “that had to hurt”, as if you the viewer would be unable to tell on your own, yes, a kick to the balls would probably hurt quite a lot. It has absolutely zero faith in its audience, and as much as I like Andy Nyman, by the tenth time of him making some off-colour joke about the violent murder of a human being, I was ready to shoot him myself.
Now, time to go a little deeper, in case my snarky tone didn’t let you know I had some problems with it. The assassins are a mixed bunch, with some of them being ex-soldiers doing it because they like killing, and so on. But at least one (Kelly Hu) and probably others, are doing it because they were forced into the lifestyle, or because they were born and brought up that way. There’s a sense it’s just a job to them, and they’re not all particularly horrible people. The real villains, of course, are the people who organise the event and those who are gambling on others’ lives, and aside from one rather inevitable final death, everyone just walks away scot-free. The film doesn’t really have a moral view on any of them, they’re just props to look happy or sad when one of their bets succeeds or fails.
Even leaving aside such plot holes as “how did Ving Rhames know that the trackers were explosives?” and matters extending from that; how he carried on fighting after being shot in both arms; how the trackers apparently work on body heat yet stop working the instant you die; why every assassin doesn’t just cut out their tracker; why so many of them, in the middle of a 24-hour fight to the death, decided to go to a strip club; or the extraordinary cheesiness of the leaderboard, the betting odds and all that, it’s still a pretty weak movie. The fight scenes and special effects are occasionally great (Hu’s fight with Scott Adkins, for example) but it’s too often “cool” for its own sake. There’s only so many times you can see a man in the middle of a room, grinning as millions of bullets fly everywhere, his only protection that he’s a main cast member and he has to get killed in a cool way later on, before you get a bit bored. The parkour guy, for the absolutely zero characterisation they give him, is on screen a heck of a lot too; perhaps they paid him a lot of money and were just getting a decent amount of use out of him.
Director Scott Mann made TV before this (and probably should have stuck there), and nothing afterwards, until “Heist” in 2015, starring Robert DeNiro, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Gina Carano. Perhaps he pays well, because they’re not working for him based on any skill at directing movies. Ripping off the plot of other, better movies are scriptwriters Gary Young (“Harry Brown”, amazingly), Jonathan Frank (nothing else, although he’s got some credit on “Heist” too), and Nick Rowntree (also nothing else). A film which is sort of fun while it’s on, but which becomes increasingly annoying the more you think about it.
Rating: thumbs down