Saturday, July 22, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: FIRST KILL (2017)

(US/UK - 2017)

Directed by Steven C. Miller. Written by Nick Gordon. Cast: Hayden Christensen, Bruce Willis, Gethin Anthony, Megan Leonard, Tyler Jon Olson, Shea Buckner, Ty Shelton, Will Demeo, Deb Girdley, Magi Avila, Christine Dye. (R, 101 mins)

The latest installment in Lionsgate/Grindstone's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series offers a bit of a stretch for Bruno. He's out and about in this one, sitting in a police cruiser, strolling through town while some extras gawk at him, and walking through the woods, but on several occasions, the former actor demonstrates his seething contempt for both his craft and his colleagues, going full Seagal by being clumsily doubled for shots in which he simply couldn't be bothered to stick around. For instance, in a scene where he's seated in a diner and he's joined by someone, it's Willis in the close-ups, but when there's a cut to an over-the-shoulder shot of the actor who's in the booth across from him, Willis is doubled from the back by a bald stand-in with a narrower head and ears that stick out, almost as if director Steven C. Miller (who previously tolerated Willis' lack of commitment to EXTRACTION and MARAUDERS) is passive-aggressively calling out the star's laziness. It gets even worse later on, when Willis is holding a gun on someone, threatening to shoot them, and in close-up, moves to point the gun down and to his left. Cut to the person he's about to shoot, and Willis' Fake Shemp is pointing the gun at the person from behind and to the right, his face obscured by a tree trunk. Is Miller even trying to match these shots after Willis leaves? There's even a few shots of the back of the double's head with dialogue and it's not even Willis' voice. There's no way Willis spends more than a day or two on these VOD trifles, but they can't even Facetime him or get him on speaker and have him say a couple of rewritten lines after he's gone?

It probably took me longer to write the above paragraph than it did for Willis to shoot his scenes for FIRST KILL. As far as forgettable VOD thrillers go, it's hardly the worst of its kind, but that's far from an endorsement. Miller seemed to be heading in the right direction with the surprisingly OK MARAUDERS, which was good despite the presence of Coast Hard. MARAUDERS had an inspired performance by Christopher Meloni to help it rise above the norm for these things, but all FIRST KILL has is Hayden Christensen, whose bland, blank persona has worked in his favor in SHATTERED GLASS and nothing else. Christensen is Will Beeman, a Wall Street broker who decides to get away for some bonding time with wife Laura (Megan Leonard) and bullied 11-year-old son Danny (Ty Shelton). Heading back to his rural hometown of Granville, OH (where this was shot, about 30 miles outside of Columbus) to stay with his Aunt Dottie (Deb Girdler), Will thinks teaching Danny how to use a rifle and taking him on a deer hunt will toughen him up. All's going well until they witness an argument between two men about the location of a bag of money that ends up with one being shot. The other sees Danny and starts shooting, prompting Will to kill him in self defense. The first man is still breathing, so Will takes him back to the cabin where nurse (conveniently enough) Laura removes the bullet and stitches him up. The injured man--wanted bank robber Levi Barrett (Gethin Anthony, best known as Renly Baratheon on GAME OF THRONES and as Charles Manson on AQUARIUS)--is so grateful that he takes Danny hostage, instigating a chain of events that finds Will playing along and helping Levi recover the money if it means keeping Danny safe, all under the watchful eye of Granville police chief Howell (Willis), who, per the script and presumably Willis' contract, exists on the periphery of the story most of the way, appearing periodically to remind the viewer of two things: 1) that Howell has a personal stake in recovering the money that goes beyond the duties of his job, and 2) that Bruce Willis is still in the movie.

FIRST KILL owes a bit to Bruce Beresford's THE CONTRACT, a 2007 Bulgaria-shot DTV thriller where John Cusack and his son are camping and end up tangling with a government-contracted killer played by a slumming Morgan Freeman. But its primary influence seems to be Clint Eastwood's 1993 drama A PERFECT WORLD, where Clint played a sheriff pursuing fugitive Kevin Costner, who bonds with a little boy he's taken hostage. Much effort is made to show that Levi is not a bad guy--after all, he's using the money to pay for medical care for his girlfriend's terminally ill mother. He also lets Danny play violent video games that his parents won't allow, and the shy, introverted child feels more at ease around Levi than he does living up to the expectations of his well-meaning but hard-driving dad. Christensen doesn't exactly sell it well when he's shown as the top power player at a bustling Wall Street office where he's barking orders at underlings and asking "Was the meeting with the Saudis today?" FIRST KILL doesn't offer any surprises as far as plot developments go--it's shown too early that Willis' Howell is up to something when he quietly tells his deputy "We may have a problem," though that's hard to tell if it's related to the script or if Miller caught Willis telling an actor whose name he likely never bothered to learn that he's upset about still being on the set. FIRST KILL is never dull and it isn't awful, but it's dumb (nice convenient placement of the four-wheelers for the chase scene) and the very definition of perfunctory, and it's brought down a notch by Willis' utter disinterest. You've crossed the line into Seagal territory when your double is laughably obvious. The only time that's acceptable is if an actor died during production and it's out of tragic necessity to complete the movie and pay respect to the late actor. Here, it's just done to keep Willis from being inconvenienced. The climax involves an emboldened Danny pointing a gun at Howell. It's tough to stage a face-off when one of the actors isn't even there, but I guess young Ty Shelton learned something about dealing with the demands of spoiled actors on his first movie. Hey kid, maybe someday you'll actually meet Bruce Willis and you can remind him you were in a movie together.

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