There are times when a film's presentation simply screams "cheap," and that word has absolutely nothing to do with budgetary constraints or finances whatsoever. There are plenty of examples where a filmmaker has had funds far more limited than the rumored budget for 'Assassin's Bullet' and still managed to produce a film with some semblance to… well, film. Here, the word "cheap" works as a variation on the term "poorly made," and when 'Assassin's Bullet' is looked at in the context of the latest effort in Christian Slater's resurrection as a movie star, the verdict will likely be that his fans should not hold their breath.
Slater didn't go it alone, however, having dragged Donald Sutherland and Timothy Spall (he was Churchill in the London Olympics' closing ceremony, and Peter Pettigrew from the 'Harry Potter' films) along with him on what must have a very convincing sales pitch for a brief, but lovely vacation in Europe's Eastern Block. While the names above the title belong to the aforementioned trio, 'Assassin's Bullet' is actually another project intended to feature Elika Portnoy, who, in addition to taking an Eddie Murphy-like multiple-role presence in the film, also came up with the story and shares a screenwriting credit with Hans Feuersinger and Nancy L. Babine.
What starts out as a seemingly innocuous take on the super-tired international espionage genre, quickly spirals out of control. A former FBI agent (Slater) now working in the American Embassy in Bulgaria is selected to investigate an assassin targeting some of America's most wanted global criminals. While the basic foundation of the film is easy enough to follow, everything else it does seemingly laughs in the face of basic logic and the tenets of storytelling. What the audience is left with is an incomprehensible mishmash involving multiple-personality disorder, 'Bourne Identity'-level brain tinkering and shoot-outs so slovenly acted, choreographed, and shot, they appear to be mocking the very type of film 'Assassin's Bullet' so desperately wants to be.
For her part in this, Portnoy has the unenviable position of attempting to portray three radically different versions of the same woman: 1) a mousy, troubled teacher who is seeing a therapist (Spall) to deal with a traumatic event from her past and subsequent memory loss, 2) an alluring, redheaded belly dancer who has taken to seducing Slater and 3) an unstoppable killing machine who actually goes by the codename Lonewolf and receives information on her targets via an iPhone app. In theory, this is likely the kind of diversity most young actresses long for in their career, let alone a single film, however, Portnoy's performance in each of these personalities is uninspired, which ironically, makes them indistinguishable from one another – the only telling difference being the different colored wigs she dons for each separate persona.
As the film drags on, it's evident that the writers, and Portnoy in particular, have taken their understanding of western action films and applied it directly to the personality of the assassin. The trouble is, the only films they've apparently bothered to reference are ones starring Milla Jovovich – in fact, nearly all the assassin's accessories appear to be left over props from the Jovovich starrer, 'Ultraviolet.' If 'Assassin's Bullet' were intended as an homage to the Ukranian-born star of the 'Resident Evil' films, then perhaps saying as such upfront would have provided a little more clarity to the proceedings. As it stands, the actions sequences here are a rather lethargic, inelegant endeavor handled with little verve by action director Isaac Florentine ('Undisputed II: Last Man Standing,' 'Undisputed III: Redemption'), who seems to be operating off a standard action-movie checklist by featuring slow motion front flips over furniture and lengthy explosions in which bodies are propelled through the air by inexplicably large fireballs.
Despite the inanity of the plot and lackluster action, the film is not without its appalling amusements. At one point, Portnoy, having just assassinated a bomb maker, turns the sights of her high-powered rifle on the target's dog and mutters, "No witnesses," before killing the poor pooch. Additionally, Spall is particularly effervescent in his approach to playing an incredibly inquisitive, somewhat salacious psychologist with a penchant for brokering trysts between his friends and Bulgarian belly dancers that is rivaled only by his public use of hookahs. Through a few choice lines of dialogue, delivered with a facial expression indicative of the cat that swallowed the canary, Spall manages to liven up the proceedings enough while Slater and Sutherland endeavor to earnestly slog through the grunt work that is their roles.
Just as the insanity reaches a fever pitch, 'Assassin's Bullet' features an ending so abrupt that the viewer may feel compelled to dial the disc back a few chapters, just to make sure it didn't inadvertently skip the third act. As it turns out, 'Assassin's Bullet' simply doesn't have one. Though the curtailed finale may feel like a rip off, it's actually more of a blessing in disguise: a storytelling element saving you from having to endure anymore of these Bulgarian shenanigans.
The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded picture does a serviceable, but not extraordinary job of bringing 'Assassin's Bullet' to home theaters. The picture is more or less immaculate; free of noise and with no evidence of banding on the mostly drab color palette featured in the film's Bulgarian setting. However, the way in which it was filmed and subsequently transferred lends an unnerving, telenovela-like quality to the picture that will have you checking the motion-smoothing setting on your television.
Aside from having the aesthetic quality of an over illuminated '60s 'Doctor Who' episode, the transfer on 'Assassin's Bullet' does benefit from the HD format, with high levels of fine detail, which are present in both close-ups and more wide-angle shots. Colors are also represented well; from gold overlays, to the rare patch of green grass and, most importantly the audaciously worn costumes of certain belly dancers, color pops vividly without looking oversaturated or compromising the film's contrast.
Though few scenes incorporate shadow or darkness into the film, black levels – when present – are even throughout, and add sufficient depth to the film's picture. While it would seem the transfer on 'Assassin's Bullet' hit the target, so to speak, it is incapable of overcoming the limitations of the film itself, thereby rendering it a modest achievement at best.
Sporting a standard DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, 'Assassin's Bullet' benefits from the audial extension of its storytelling elements the most. While the majority of the film is actually dialogue driven, the occasional moments of gunplay and explosions come through with resounding clarity and LFE that is lively, but not overdone. Similarly, dialogue is clear and easily understood throughout – even when lines are spoken over an added layer of "live" music during the belly dancing scenes.
Surround effects and imaging in those scenes are also strong, and the directionality accurately pinpoints the location of actors and sound effects emanating off screen. During action sequences, the rear channels capture return gunfire and ricocheting bullets with precision, enveloping the viewer in the chaos – poorly realized as it is. There is also a small amount of rear channel that comes through and adds an extra dimension to the film's mostly uninspired score, but is a noticeable addition to the film's presentation.
Oddly low key for much of its 91 minutes, 'Assassin's Bullet' does come through with decent audio to enhance the otherwise lackluster elements of the film.
Some may be surprised to find out that this is the third time Portnoy has conjured up and gone on to star in a feature film. Normally, this would be an impressive feat, making her a sort of Bulgarian Jennifer Westfeldt, but, sadly, the quality of this film suggests that is not the case. What may have appeared to be a plum, diverse role filled with tantalizing character elements comes off feeling more like a rather tedious exercise in self-assumption. Clearly, Portnoy has a better grasp on the concepts of securing financing than she does the elements of story, and because of that, 'Assassin's Bullet' likely won't be the last we've heard of her. Still, there is just enough restraint missing from the film to suggest that it is not to be taken seriously. Perhaps that is the secret of 'Assassin's Bullet' – rather than simply being an inept, baffling addition to annals of movie history, it is, in actuality, such a supremely crafted piece of action-movie satire that it practically ensures the joke is, and will forever be, on us.