'Killing Season' is one of those productions where the story behind how it got made is far more interesting than the finished product. Originally intended to be a re-teaming of Face/Off actors John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, the movie's original title was 'Shrapnel', took place in the 1970s, and was supposed to be helmed by Director John McTiernan. First Cage decided to drop out of the movie, then McTiernan's legal issues (and subsequent jail sentence) meant he could no longer helm the picture. The 1970s angle was dropped from the story, it got a new title, Mark Steven Johnson stepped in to direct, and Robert De Niro was hired to replace Cage. Alas, a movie about the making of this movie would probably be more interesting than the finished product itself.
Travolta plays Emil Kovac, a veteran of the Bosnian War of the mid-1990s who is determined to hunt down and kill Col. Benjamin Ford (De Niro) even though we're shown in a flashback that Ford spared Kovac's life during a prisoner execution. The opening scenes make it clear what Kovac's intentions are, so even though the box cover synopsis for the film makes it sound like Kovac is just a tourist in America, the movie itself never presents him that way.
Johnson's film goes out of its way in the early sequences to depict Ford as a pacifist – he's somewhat of a recluse who lives in a cabin out in the middle of Tennessee Appalachia (the film was actually shot in the Georgia portion of the mountain range), and he doesn't even kill the wildlife that he hunts – he photographs them instead. His evenings are filled with home-cooked meals and listening to the one Johnny Cash song the producers could afford the rights to: "Don't Take Your Guns To Town". No, this movie is not subtle about dropping clues to its characters' personalities.
Ford first runs into Kovac when he's having trouble with his Jeep, and Kovac helps him fix the problem. Ford invites Kovac back to his cabin, where the two men share an evening of telling old war stories (Kovac, naturally, keeps his intentions hidden) and drinking. The next morning, the two men go on an elk hunt together, during which Kovac reveals his true nature by shooting an arrow that barely misses Ford. Then the hunt is on, although it doesn't exactly play out the way one would expect.
The problem with the cat and mouse game between Kovac and Ford is that its only logic seems to be to stretch the movie's run time out long enough to qualify as a feature-length movie (incidentally, the film clocks in at 90 minutes, but the end credits are almost 10 minutes of that run time). Kovac corners Ford, but decides to torture him instead of killing him, giving Ford the chance to escape. Not long after that, Ford captures Kovac and chooses to torture him just long enough for Kovac to once again get the upper hand. Even further along in the film Kovac decides he won't kill Ford until he 'confesses' to his war crimes, while Ford decides he's not the killer he used to be when he was a soldier. By the time viewers get to this point in the movie, they'll want to slash their own wrists.
Much has already been made of Travolta's silly accent in this movie and his over-the-top acting, but De Niro doesn't have anything to brag about either. Travolta is at least consistent with his accent. De Niro, on the other hand, sometimes uses a southern drawl in his dialogue then quickly shifts back to his native New York accent. The only positive thing I can say about their performances in this movie is that they're nowhere near as bad as some of the other movies where Travolta and De Niro have essentially phoned it in.
Having two iconic actors co-star in a movie that turns out to be subpar isn't a new thing for Hollywood (De Niro had a similar flop just a few years back pairing up with Al Pacino in Righteous Kill), but it always makes me wonder where things go wrong. I'd like to be optimistic and think it's not just about the actors making a quick paycheck. Maybe movies like these just need more notable directors to helm them, as I can only imagine the reaction of Travolta or De Niro if someone like Mark Steven Johnson told them he didn't care for their last take. Maybe 'Killing Season' might have been more entertaining with Nicholas Cage…or with John McTiernan…or with a better script. Sadly, it's just another one of cinema's missed opportunites.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Killing Season' blasts its way onto Blu-ray in a standard keepcase with a slipcover (the front and back artwork matches the keepcase slick) and no inserts. The disc itself is front-loaded with trailers for Upside Down, Stuck In Love, The Iceman, and What Maise Knew. All four of these trailers are also available for viewing as part of the 'Previews' section of the bonus materials. The main menu showcases a video montage from the movie, with selections along the bottom of the screen.
The video for 'Killing Season' was one of the more interesting I've reviewed for a number of reasons. For starters, the movie is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, but when watching the bonus materials, I noticed that in both the featurette and the theatrical trailer, the movie had a 2.35:1 ratio. So I did a comparison between some shots in the extras and the same shots in the movie, and – sure enough – the film has been cropped on the sides to get it into the 1.78:1 ratio we see here. But I also noticed that more information can be seen on the top and bottom of the screen than what is seen in the 2.35:1 ratio in the extras. Since 'Killing Season' had a very limited theatrical run (no more than a dozen theaters), I'm assuming that it was decided to reframe the film for home video.
Next, the movie has a very digital look to the presentation, although the limited information I could find about the shoot online seems to indicate the movie was shot on 35mm film. Grain is rarely evident in the print, even in darker and dimly-lit sequences. Sharpness and details are rather good, although some scenes have a rather 'flat' look to them. Black levels are just average, resulting in a contrast in most scenes that appears a little on the washed-out side of things. I didn't detect any obvious issues with banding or artifacting. All in all, this is a mostly average to slightly better than average video presentation for a Blu-ray release.
For a movie about two guys trying to kill each other, 'Killing Season' has a remarkable amount of soft-spoken dialogue moments, meaning the 5.1 Dolby Digital TrueHD track isn't always as active as one might think. When it does kick in, though, it has a lot of fun with directionality. There's a scene late in the movie where Travolta and De Niro find themselves in an abandoned church and where Travolta's character is trying to determine where De Niro's character is by the creaking of the wood. There's a nice minute or so where the audio provides a fun immersive experience as the sound of wood takes turns coming from various speakers, including the rears. Other, less action-oriented moments in the movie keep most of the audio up front.
There's a nice balance between dialogue, background sounds, and the movie's soundtrack, and I detected no noticeable glitches or dropouts. In addition to the 5.1 TrueHD track, a 2.0 Dolby Digital track is also available, as are subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
The biggest problem with 'Killing Season' is that it can't seem to decide if it wants to be a fresh take on 'The Most Dangerous Game' or Enemy Mine. The result is a mish-mash of a movie where scenes that feature the two leads trying to kill each other are mixed with scenes where the main characters seem like old camping buddies. Long before either soldier decides what to do with the other, you'll want to take this film into the woods and put it out of its misery. Skip it.