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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Thriller Without Thrills About an Intelligence Operation Without a Modicum of Intelligence

Directed by Isaac Florentine
Starring Christian Slater, Donald Sutherland, Elika Portney, Timothy Spall.

Sometimes a film has a lot of things going for it but still falls short. There can be many reasons for the failure, including miscast characters, poor pacing or a story with obvious plot holes.

For Assassin's Bullet, a spy thriller that has good camerawork, terrific Bulgarian settings, a promising cast and a dark sensibility, all of the above is true: it's star power and fabulous locations are both wasted and the film lacks a story that is remotely credible.

The plot follows a series of murders in Sofia, Bulgaria in which the targets are known terrorists. There is no suspense about who is doing the killing because her identity (Elika Portnoy) is  revealed almost as soon as the credits roll.
Despite feeble attempts at disguise, the film builds no real suspense because we know Elika Portnoy is the assassin almost as soon as the opening credits roll.

For reasons that are never adequately explained, U.S. Ambassador Ashdown (Donald Sutherland) assigns Robert (Christian Slater), a former FBI agent who joined the State Department as a legal attaché after his wife was killed by criminals, to investigate the killings.

This is the first Grand Canyon-sized plot hole for two reasons: first, the people who are being murdered are people the U.S. would rather see dead anyway, so why would an American ambassador care who was pulling the trigger? Second, why would a political appointee posted to the Embassy in a foreign country involve his own staff in what to all appearances is a local police investigation? 

Questions of national sovereignty aside, the local man wouldn't have the equipment or staff to evaluate the evidence, so all he would be doing is following in the footsteps of the local cops.

None of these rather obvious questions are answered in this film, which plods along as if the contradictions didn't exist. What is more surprising, Robert doesn't raise them when the ambassador makes his request; in fact, he doesn't even seem particularly curious.

In any case, during his investigation Robert comes in contact with a mysterious young woman named Vicky (Portnoy) who is being treated for a host of psychiatric problems by Dr. Kahn (Timothy Spall).

Timothy Spall is more believable as the death eater who masquerades as Ron Weasely's pet mouse in the Harry Potter movies than as Vicky's shrink in Assassin's Bullet.

Vicky seems to be living out multiple identities, including one of a grammar school teacher and another of a belly dancer at a local nightclub. Only the most cretinous and myopic viewer will fail to notice that Vicky is also the assassin who is gunning down all the terrorists in the city of Sofia.

The motivation for Vicky becoming an international murderess is explained in a series of heavy-handed flashbacks: her parents, we learn, were killed by a terrorist's bomb; the trauma of witnessing their deaths apparently gave her amnesia and set her up as an easily controlled homicidal maniac.

Of course, everyone knows that if you have a sensitive intelligence task to perform -- like executing highly trained terrorists, you don't want to find an experienced spy or professional killer to do the job; you want to recruit an amnesiac suffering from schizophrenia whose past life makes her spectacularly mentally unstable.

For his part, Robert is terribly horny, apparently because he hasn't had a date with a woman since his wife died. For reasons that are never explained he buys a shemagh, one of the patterned scarfs favored by PLO fighters and Arab nationalists, then wears it constantly while he wanders the streets of Sofia looking for clues. He falls for Vicky, whom he meets in her belly dancer guise. 

She seems to be attracted to him, too, but her duty as an assassin takes first priority over her private love life. So she pops a few more swarthy terrorists while Robert mopes around looking for clues. Also she seems to have a pathological aversion to Robert's shemagh -- probably because the man who killed her parents wore one.

The scarf becomes a sort of unintentional running joke: every time Robert puts it around his neck, Vicky runs away, making him wonder if her attraction to him is real -- or if he might be using the wrong aftershave and deodorant.

The climax of the film is a fight between Robert and Vicky after she murders an entire nest of Middle Eastern terrorists. She easily defeats him, even though she is probably half his weight, which raises serious questions about the adequacy of the training FBI agents get in hand-to-hand combat. 

Then she vanishes, leaving him to mull his unhappy history with women. In the final scene, there is a pathetic reveal on a train heading out of Sofia that supposedly makes it clear who has been running Vicky as an assassin from the very beginning. Their identity is supposed to come as a surprise, but most viewers will have figured it out at least halfway through the picture.

As former FBI Agent Robert, Christopher Slater gives a weak performance characterized primarily by his bad eyesight: he doesn't recognize that his new girlfriend Vicky is the assassin even after he loses a mixed martial arts duel with her.

I viewed the film via Netflix largely on the basis of its genre and the fact that some members of the cast have done pictures I enjoyed in the past. But the cast appears to have been hired for name value alone: Slater is flat and affectless, Spall is corny (bag that accent, buddy!) and Sutherland simply mails in his performance -- third-class.

In my view, there are two dependable ways that an espionage film (or novel, for that matter) can be constructed. One of them is to build it along the lines of a traditional "cozy" mystery with all its clues laid out in plain sight. This would be the technique used in the television miniseries of Smiley's People and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy by John LeCarre, in which the "proofs," to use the term favored by The General (Curt Jurgens), an antique Russian spy of Cold War vintage, are arranged neatly and challenge the viewer (or reader) to follow them through to conclusion.

Or a spy thriller can concentrate on the thrill factor, sweeping the viewer along in a torrent of action that invites her or him to ignore factual discrepancies, plot holes and other flaws. In other words, it can depend on that willing suspension of disbelief on which all speculative storytelling leans heavily. Probably the best example of this school would be the Bourne films starring Matt Damon: so long as the action is hot and heavy, the audience is unlikely to reflect on the impossibility of such a perfectly tuned killing machine -- or a conspiracy so vast that no word of it has previously slipped out.

Assassin's Bullet follows neither of these paths. The script is not only marred by the gaping plot holes mentioned earlier -- a major fail for the type of traditional spy thriller that depends on a clean, logical clockwork plot -- but the film's pace is too slow and its action sequences too far apart to keep the viewer from dwelling on its inanities.

Portnoy, whose real name is Elena Trifonova, seems to be the key. In addition to playing the leading role, she co-authored the script and served as its executive producer. Portnoy is an attractive but not particularly talented young woman who apparently made so much money in her earlier career as a model and television host that she can now afford to dabble in cinema. This picture, like at least two other films produced by her Boston-based company, Mutressa Movies, has vanity project written all over it.

Assassin's Bullet is a forgettable film that any serious fan of espionage dramas is likely to find extremely disappointing. It has been unfavorably compared to Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, but any such comparison is a slur on Besson's reputation.

Save the money you'd blow on Assassin's Bullet and rent La Femme Nikita, instead; while the two movies have similarities, one is good. Unfortunately, it's not  Assassin's Bullet.

Two nooses.

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