HITMAN: May the Force Be with You Luc
by Dr. Craig Reid
The problem with many French films is that watching them is like eating one of their national dishes ? escargot ? snail-paced. But ever since French director/producer Luc Besson got a taste of Hong Kong action and its rapid-fire rhythm (as introduced to him by yours truly back in 1997), French movies either under his thumb or under the jurisdiction of his production company Les Films de Dauphins (so named after his love for dolphins) have made the jump into one of America's national dishes - pizza and cola - fast-food, quick-paced. HITMAN is the latest film to receive Besson's thumbs-up rating, adding to his string of Hong Kong-influenced hits such as TRANSPORTER I and II, KISS OF THE DRAGON, DISTRICT B-13, ONG BAK (guess who partially funded that film folks) and DANNY THE DOG (released in America as UNLEASHED).
HITMAN is based on the award-winning videogame franchise of the same name about a genetically-engineered, elite assassin known only as Agent 47. It was created by Danish developer IO Interactive, which is now a division of Eidos Interactive, founded by American Daniel Streater, who also developed the videogame "Tomb Raider". One can't help but to think that Streater's fascination with Japanese cinema that began with his days at Cambridge might have influenced the character Agent 47. 47 is a parentless boy that develops into a man with no real master, and only listens to a voice on the computer, and of course THE 47 RONIN (masterless samurai) is a classic Japanese film.
The movie HITMAN is about a mysterious and complex man of profound contradictions: although bred from the world's deadliest criminals he was raised by an exiled brotherhood of the Church. His very existence seems to be a sin, but he wages a quiet war to rid the world of evil. He is brilliant, charismatic and charming ? yet reveals little about himself, has no name, and is known only by the last two digits of a barcode tattooed on the back of his head: 47 (Timothy Olyphant). His hallmarks are a lethal grace, unwavering precision, and resolute pride in his work. But even 47 could not anticipate a "random equation" in his life of exactitude: the unexpected stirrings of his conscience and the unfamiliar emotions aroused in him by a mysterious Russian woman played by one of Europe's latest top models, the slender Olga Kurylenko).
What bodes well for this game-film adaptation is that French director Xavier Gens is an avid gamer and was ecstatic to be directing a film based on one of his favorite games. As a gaming enthusiast, Gens wanted to remain faithful to the game's unique style and spirit. As a filmmaker, he was determined to avoid the pitfalls of the videogame-to-film adaptations, Jean Claude Van Damme's STREETFIGHTER - the ultimate model not to follow in term of game-film failure.
"Unlike other games turned to films, we wanted the motion picture HITMAN to tell an original and exciting story," Gens explains via a translator, "and not just turn the game into a movie. Our goal was to make something ?real' out of an imaginary universe while respecting all of the iconic aspects of the game, which has a lot of devoted fans."
To that end, Gens and screenwriter Skip Woods retained much of the game's mythology and imagery, including 47's elaborate weaponry, sartorial choices, and trademark fleur-de-lis. "Skip wrote a great script from the source material," Gens continues. "It's a totally different approach but he kept all the beauty and the basic elements of the videogame and its main character: black suit, white shirt, red tie, bald, and barcode. The psychological ambiguity and the mystery of the Hitman are still there ? where he comes from, what kind of education he received to develop his impressive skills. Agent 47 is a killer who doesn't take any pleasure from killing," Gens continues. "He is a professional. He just does his job. And this is why he is so enigmatic. We are always considering why he does what he does."
In fact, it was Besson that convinced the studio executives to have Gens direct HITMAN, and that move prompted lead man Timothy Olyphant to come on board. "Xavier is a real cinephile," Olyphant relates. "Sitting down and talking to him about his ideas and what kind of movie he thought this could be was the closer for me. He got me very excited about the project.
"It reminded me a little bit of John Woo's THE KILLER, where you have this assassin who is so good at what he did, and what's so cool about that film was the way the guy could walk into the front door of the restaurant, check the hat, listen to the girl singing, run back and kill everybody.
"What we had here is something similar, a guy with a black suit, red tie and a bald head with a tattoo on the back of his head. As a hitman, the last thing you want to do is stick out in a crowd but this hitman does stick out in the crowd and that just simply tells you how good he is at what he does and the fact that he can get away with it.
"But in order to have a film about this character, you need to have that world be turned upside down where he doesn't know who is after him or why they're after him. In an effort to put things back in order, what begins to happen is you begin to try to figure out, ?What was the life I was leading and did it really have the appeal that it used to?' When things get all turned inside out, you start questioning those things. This is the kind of thing you can't get in the game."
In creating Olyphant's title character Gens drew inspiration from the compelling loners more associated with Westerns, Knight-errant films of Chang Cheh and the solitary spies of Cold War-era thrillers. "I wanted 47 to be a kind of lone hero," Gens notes. "He has a profound loneliness and an almost mythical quality, not unlike all of the above characters in their respective film genres.
"When I saw Tim's performance in LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, I thought that this was the man to be 47 and when I met him, it was a real revelation," Gens happily gleams. "He has something interesting going on ? he's a really nice guy, very cool, but he also has a ?dark' quality. I thought he could really pull off 47's search for his own humanity.
"The actor playing 47 had to possess physical strength, intensity, grace and elegance," Gens adds. "On the first day of shooting when Tim arrived on set, he was exactly the character everybody had been dreaming about."
Prior to starting the role, Olyphant spent six weeks in a gym with a personal trainer, whose attitude Olyphant describes as, "Let's bring Tim into the gym for an hour and a half and see if we can't make him throw up." Olyphant also practiced with automatic weapons on a firing range. Although the finishing touch in turning Olyphant into Agent 47 was the shaving of his head to mirror the character's iconic Buddhist monk appearance, he firmly drew the line in having a barcode transfer applied to the back of his head and not the actual tattoo that several film executives were actually pushing for.
"I'll be honest," he frowns, "I thought the costumes were cool but the haircut -- not so much. The day they shaved my head, my first thought was, ?If only I could do this job with my hair.' But you let go of that after a while because there's something about the shaved head that is really striking, but not a real tattoo.
"As I mentioned earlier, I really thought we were making something like a Woo film," Olyphant points out. "There's a certain elegance to the film, but the violence was there as well, just like Woo's gun fire scenes, and of course his patented gun-pointing at each others shots, which we take to an interesting twist. But it wasn't comical, we weren't trying to make something that felt like, ?Oh wow, 50 guys just died and I barely noticed.' It wasn't that kind of thing.
"There is something very violent and cold-blooded about 47, but at the core he's a guy who's doing his job, day in and day out," Olyphant reminisces. "It seems like a rather lonely existence and he's emotionally detached from his work, I guess you'd have to be detached to do that job. But it's true of anyone in a very high level position who operates on his or her own. They try to keep things as simple, unemotional and organized as possible because it allows them to keep the mind clear and be able to do the work.
"As the movie changed Xavier and I had a lot of conversations about the type of violence and how it changes throughout the film, as the character changes. Xavier is a very thoughtful guy and a very smart guy, and he is the main reason I was enthusiastic about this project. From the moment we met, his enthusiasm for the material was infectious. He was aiming high and I thought that was impressive."
Agent 47's hyper-orderly life and clear mind are unexpectedly complicated when he meets Nika, a Russian prostitute who stirs Agent 47's conscience and makes him begin to question the nature of his line of work. "Nika is a catalyst in 47's internal struggle," says Gens. "He's in the middle of all this political turmoil, embroiled in external conflicts, and dealing with people he needs to kill and with those who want to kill him. In the middle of all that, Nika appears. She is beautiful, tough and charming ? and she cares about him. But he's not used to that at all. Nobody told him that people could have natural relationships, and that turns his life upside down."
The use of talent such as Kurylenko to play Nika is right in line with Besson's touch in the international films he attaches himself to as we saw with Milla Jovovich, Amber Valleta, Bridget Fonda and Shu Qi. In fact, the tie-ins of Besson's touch goes beyond this. Not only were Fonda's character in KISS OF THE DRAGON and Kurlyenko's role in HITMAN prostitutes, but also the fight choreographer, Gregory Loffredo, in HITMAN learned his craft from Yuen Kwei as a stuntman on KISS OF THE DRAGON and THE TRANSPORTER, and from Yuen Woo-ping on the set of UNLEASHED. Furthermore, one of Besson's favorite Hong Kong films is DRAGON FROM RUSSIA, which starred one of Hong Kong's Seven Little Fortunes (a 1960s opera performance group that featured Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung) Yuen Tak, who was also the fight choreographer on KISS OF THE DRAGON and DRAGON FROM RUSSIA. So it is no coincidence that the best fight in HITMAN as well as one of the featured fights in DRAGON FROM RUSSIA was inside a train car, both of which were shot in the same train station in St. Petersburg, Russia. The HITMAN version graduated to swords inside then outside the train into a low confined space similar to Jackie Chan's fight scene with Liu Chia-liang underneath the train in DRUNKEN MASTER II.
Unfortunately when it came down to the final fight sequence, Gens perhaps was trying to draw influence from BOURNE ULTIMATUM's tight angle shots blended with shifty camera movements. Instead the action comes across like ultra-edited chaos, further compounded by Gens shooting in and around the fight while shaking the camera as if it was filmed an earthquake instead of using strategically inserted wide angle shots to develop clear visual logic; something to show the audience that it is actual physical technique rather than camera maneuvers selling the action's beauty and brutality.
As he put the finishing touches on HITMAN, Gens reflects on his hopes for the film. "I want the gamers to be happy but I also want the audience to experience the movie as a kind of modern Western, something gothic but with a bit of poetry. There's a lot of emotion and there's some really strong action. Agent 47 is a violent man, but also a man searching his conscience. It is a story of redemption for him, a chance to find his own humanity and start a new life. Of course, whether 47 will achieve this a key element of the story."
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Written by Dr. Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM