If there is one character that filmmakers really seem keen on exploring, it is that of the impeccably dressed, fastidious, charming, and yet incredibly lonely hitman. They love to show the audience a contract killer's knack for planning, his (or her – though unless they can get Angelina Jolie, it's most often a he) meticulous nature – that usually requires he lay out all the tools of his assignment on a hotel bed, across the floor of his apartment (usually decorated in the post-Moby minimalist style) or on some rudimentary workbench in his secret warehouse lair – as he goes through a pre-kill ritual like a well-oiled machine or someone with a mild case of OCD.
It's a common trope of the hitman subgenre – itself common enough to have earned a subgenre – and it's certainly on full display in writer-director Perry Bhandal's feature film debut, 'Interview With a Hitman'; a sometimes-visually interesting and competently made action thriller that occasionally struggles to strike the right balance between character and plot.
Bhandal's journey to becoming a filmmaker is an interesting one, and since he places considerable significance on the notion of backstory in his film, it's probably a good idea for this review to spend some time there, too. According to an essay written by the director in late-summer 2012, 'Interview with a Hitman' was born out of the necessity to demonstrate his directorial prowess, after some potential distributors got cold feet at Bhandal's suggestion he direct a different film from a screenplay he had also written. Essentially, 'Interview' was Bhandal's test run in the director's chair; a chance to show producers and financers what he could do with a modest budget and some recognizable talent in front of the lens.
The vast majority of that talent comes from actor Luke Goss – Guillermo Del Toro's go-to guy when he needs a villain for a movie sequel, e.g., 'Hellboy II and 'Blade II' – who, aside from Stephen Marcus ('Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels') is likely the only recognizable face in the picture. But, to Goss' great credit, he brings a compelling presence (he even looks a bit like another hitman: Agent 47 of the 'Hitman' video games) to a role that is, more or less, one that has been seen many times before, in a storyline that feels similarly well trodden. In 'Interview With a Hitman,' Goss plays Viktor, who, unsurprisingly, is the titular hitman giving an interview.
The film opens up with a mostly silent sequence in which the aforementioned love of a hitman's process is examined – a handgun is assembled from parts smuggled inside electronics, some light surveillance is undertaken and then the night (and job) is wrapped up with what we presume is a contract killing. In the moment, there's no explanation on why Viktor goes to such lengths to conceal his weapon's parts, or why he is ending someone's life (although that comes later); presumably he (like the film's writer) is just pulling from the Hitman's Handbook on the chapter of How to Make Your Job Inexplicably More Difficult and Elaborate Than it Needs to Be.
But that is also a great way of describing the film itself – which makes things far more difficult than they need to be, for the purpose of superficially infusing meaning and depth into a rather rote storyline and a surface-level deep character study.
Early on, after we get to know Viktor a little better, and find him granting an interview to an affable older gentleman with a video camera, the film switches gears to travel back to Viktor's childhood in the slums of Romania. Looking for a way out of his less-than-favorable home life, Viktor exhibits a little chutzpah in front of the local mafia types, and one execution of a debtor and his wife later, Viktor is on his way to a lifetime of contract killings and mafia dealings. The narrative then lurches forward, showing Viktor in a botched deal that winds up with him on the lam for having killed some members of a rival family due to the incompetence of his boss' son. All of which brings the story, more or less, to the present, where a beautiful young woman named Bethesda has the lonely hitman rethinking his purpose in life and tracking down those who did him wrong back in Romania.
It's clear that the graphic nature of young Viktor's upbringing – his trial by fire, if you will – is intended to lend some sort of gravitas to present-day Viktor's status and growing desire to move on from the business. It's the oft-told story of the hitman who suddenly desires more from his life than shuffling people off this mortal coil. But there exists a disconnect between the two time periods in that the backstory doesn't add anything to the film's portrayal of Viktor or his unnecessarily complex, supposedly character-driven narrative.
And that's really what trips this film up. Bhandal is too intent on making his film into what he calls "a character study." The problem is, he does so without ever establishing why this character is interesting, and why anyone should care about him. Is Viktor interesting because he kills people for money? Is it because "family" betrayed him? Is the audience supposed to care about him because he fell in love with an admittedly gorgeous woman? All of these are possible reasons for Bhandal's characters to have the audience's attention, but regardless of which one you choose, there's very little behind it to make it mean something and to actually inform about the character or his condition.
One can see where Bhandal was going with the lengthy focus on Viktor's backstory. Despite being long-winded and sometimes poorly acted, it gives the impression that there is depth in Viktor's character; there is the illusion of motivation and development. The thing is, most of the time, backstory such as this is just filler; it's interesting, sure, but it doesn't provide any real insight into the mind of a grown man we're supposed to be invested in. We don't need to know what the circumstances were when Viktor took his first life; we need to know what is compelling him to continue to do so (or not) as an adult. And the answer to that question is what's ultimately lacking in Bhandal's script.
'Interview With a Hitman' has an intriguing set up – the apparent confession of a man who has only known killing as a way of life – and some good bursts of intense action, but the pacing feels as wobbly as some of the more important story elements. There are interesting questions involving learned vs. instinctual morality, as well as the usual trappings of violence as a means of seeking justice or revenge, but it's only ever brought up in the film's surprising denouement. These are the things the audience would expect to be studied, but never really are. Instead it's just a filmmaker plotting a course from point A to point B, fiddling with the chronology a bit, and filling in the blanks in between. And there's nothing wrong with doing that; plenty of films utilize that kind of storytelling, and some do it quite well – but where they differ is in offering more compelling moments to bridge points A & B.
This may not be an entirely auspicious debut for Perry Bhandal, but interspersed amongst the more drawn-out aspects of the film, there are flourishes of solid technique and style that help to elevate 'Interview With a Hitman' slightly above the more prosaic aspects of its screenplay.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Interview With a Hitman' comes from Well Go USA Entertainment and has the same solid presentation we have come to expect from the company. The single 25GB Blu-ray comes in a standard keepcase, but with an outer sleeve adorned with the same cover art. The disc will auto play several previews before heading to the top menu.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer shows some moments of incredible detail and depth, and the occasional moment where both seem to intentionally take a dive for the benefit of filtering. While the filtered elements never quite manage to look as good as the unfiltered scenes – or do they really provide any sort of additional depth (stylistic or otherwise) – they don't completely derail the fine presentation of the film, either.
'Interview With a Hitman' was shot digitally with the cinematography being deftly handled by Richard Swingle. As in most cases with a nascent filmmaker, and newer technology, having someone on board who clearly knows his or her way around a camera makes a great deal of difference. And in this case, the effort pays off with a consistent look and feel that also manages to display some solid textures and a great amount of fine detail.
The image also boasts solid contrast, with deep, dark blacks that help sell its equally inky narrative, especially during the film's opening moments. There are a few occasions where whites tend to bloom more than they should and skin seems to be shinier than need be – which doesn't help when the characters are in harsh lighting – but that may actually have been a stylistic choice, not unlike the filters mentioned above. For the most part, 'Interview With a Hitman' has a very reserved color palate – preferring to stay primarily on the cooler side of things – which, although being another staple of the genre, really works quite well here. When color is used to highlight a scene or an individual, it tends to stand out dramatically, as the transfer makes good use of anything bright, vivid and on the warmer side of the spectrum.
Overall, this is an excellent transfer from a film that really appears to have made the most of its modest budget and the experience of the director.
Although it wouldn't be entirely appropriate to categorize it as a straight-up action film, 'Interview With a Hitman' certainly makes use of its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, as if it were one. Gunshots ring out with force and the occasional scene involving hand-to-hand combat sends objects (and bodies) flying around the various channels effortlessly. Rear channels are utilized quite well to immerse the listener in the ambient sounds of neighborhoods, or even the tinny echo of a dilapidated warehouse. Overall, the use of sound effects and score are displayed quite well on the mix.
The film has plenty of quieter or dialogue-driven moments, as well, and while most scenes come through clearly, there are occasions where softer voices – like that of Caroline Tillette – almost disappear completely in comparison to the other actors, and especially in contrast to the sound effects and other atmospheric elements. It is a relatively small issue, considering how well the rest of the film sounds, but it's noticeable and may leave the viewer reaching for the remote during certain moments of the film.
But a small balancing issue shouldn't overshadow what is ultimately a fine audio mix that uses surround sound quite well, and manages to highlight the film with deep, rich sound that can really suck the viewer in.
'Interview With a Hitman' may be one of those features that is more interesting for the circumstances under which it was made, rather than how the film speaks for itself. It's clear that Bhandal is passionate about filmmaking as a process and as a business – which is probably what led him to craft this very modestly budgeted film in such a short amount of time. As with most things done in such a manner, there are plenty of plusses and minuses to be granted when critiquing the work. Obviously, had there been more time, the overall look and feel of the film might be more polished. On the other hand, however, the brusque, unrefined nature of Bhandal's work here also makes up a considerable amount of the film's appeal. And while certain areas of the script could use some fine-tuning and another pass in the editing bay might tighten things up, the film can be considered a win in terms of Bhandal's directorial aspirations. Additonally, the disc comes with an excellent image and very good sound, making 'Interview With a Hitman' worth a look.