Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Hitlist (2011)

Corporate engineer Alan Campbell (Cole Hauser) has a very bad day: the gangster he has debts with is getting violently impatient; at his job, the promotion he thought was his is going to a guy who may or may not have stolen his ideas (and who most certainly is an asshat of the highest degree); and when he gets home, he finds his wife (Ginny Weirick) sleeping with his best friend. I’m happy he doesn’t have any pets, or that’d have been a dead doggie, too, I suppose.

Obviously, Alan’s next step after that particular day is to find the next bar and get dead drunk. Alas, at the bar he meets a guy calling himself Jonas (Cuba Gooding Jr.). After giving Alan the cold shoulder for a bit, Jonas offers himself up as just the guy to cry to, which is exactly what Alan does while getting even drunker. At one point in the conversation, Jonas starts berating Alan for being a wet blanket but also offering help. Well, a very particular kind of help.

Jonas explains to Alan he’s a professional killer, and because he’s such a nice guy, he’s going to kill the five people Alan wants to see die the most for free. Alan, drunk, stupid, and believing he’s just venting in a particularly original manner, makes the list. Shortly after that, Jonas disappears.

Alan does think nothing of it – you don’t meet professional killers who give freebies randomly in bars after all – until he goes to work the next day and finds out his boss, the first man on his hit list, has been murdered. And Jonas certainly isn’t going to stop there.

While I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the best time for the actor himself, I’ve turned into a bit of a fan of the phase in Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career when he couldn’t find proper Oscar winning actor roles anymore but just kept on working in direct-to-DVD, or so cheap they might as well have been, action films and thrillers. I’m especially fond of these phase because Gooding never seems to approach his work there as if he is doing the films he is in a favour with his presence or as if he is slumming (though he surely is). Instead his performances in these films generally have the dignity of true professionalism, and more often than not, it feels as if Gooding’s contributions push everyone else involve to do better work than they usually do.

The Hitlist’s director William Kaufman doesn’t really need a push. While he has to follow the rules of direct-to-DVD action and so can’t quite ever reach the heights of his fantastic debut feature The Prodigy, at the very least his body of work suggests another dedicated professional in a part of the movie realm that has a few too many guys operating in it who don’t exactly seem to care to make a decent movie as long as they can put the names of Lundgren or Van Damme on a DVD cover, even when these hardly feature in the respective films.

While the budget clearly can’t provide too much actual action in this action movie, the handful of sequences that are there have more than decent stunt work and demonstrate a certain dry flair without Kaufman falling back at whoosh cuts, jump cuts or wildly wavering camera; the stunt crew really doesn’t need this sort of distraction because they, too, are dedicated professionals. The action is generally short and punchy, with a nice climax during which Gooding gets to shoot up a police station, Terminator-style.

Which of course leaves many a minute of running time to fill. That’s the point where quite a few direct-to-DVD action films truly falter, for filling the space between acts of violence seems to overtax quite a few imaginations. The Hit List, fortunately, has an actual plot – even one that makes sense if you are willing to buy into the basic set-up - and while the characters’ psychology isn’t exactly deeply insightful, people here usually have a motivation for what they do, and tend to act in ways that’s appropriate to the situation. Now, this doesn’t exactly sound like a glowing compliment to make for any movie, but in direct-to-DVD action movie land, this demonstrates an uncommon degree of care. It’s also, dare I say it, entertaining to watch, often even thrilling. Additionally, having an actual script doesn’t just give Gooding the opportunity to elegantly underplay (at least for this sort of environment) what could be an annoying scenery chewing maniac but also brings out the best of Cole Hauser. The less semi-famous Hauser, it turns out, is really good at playing our sad sack protagonist, believably going from helpless anger at his life to a very specific kind of courage in the end.

This all adds up to a fine bit of low budget action filmmaking.

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