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In Theaters/On VOD: KILLING SEASON (2013)

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KILLING SEASON
(US/Belgium - 2013)

Directed by Mark Steven Johnson.  Written by Evan Daugherty.  Cast: John Travolta, Robert De Niro, Milo Ventimiglia, Elizabeth Olin.  (R, 87 mins)

It's hard to believe Robert De Niro and John Travolta have never worked together until now.  It's even harder to believe that they chose KILLING SEASON to be their long-overdue first collaboration.  There have been many serious films made about the Bosnian War and it's aftermath, but this isn't one of them.  Oh, it tries to be, and it thinks it succeeds, but KILLING SEASON is a film divided against itself.  Evan Daugherty's script, originally titled SHRAPNEL, set in the 1970s, and involving the aftermath of Vietnam, drifted around Hollywood for the last decade, and was initially a project planned for FACE/OFF stars Travolta and Nicolas Cage with the now-incarcerated John McTiernan (DIE HARD) set to direct.  It never came together in that incarnation, and now the resulting film, directed by Mark Steven Johnson (DAREDEVIL, GHOST RIDER)--who knows how much, if any, of Daugherty's original script is on the screen?--wants to be a realistic, meditative examination of war and what it does to soldiers, but is torn between that and being a graphically gory revenge saga.  So on one hand, KILLING SEASON is a terrible serious movie, but the sight of two iconic legends trying to kill each other in a wilderness splatter flick that's been dumped by its distributor on just 12 screens nationwide and VOD is probably the 2013 equivalent of prestige actors inexplicably turning up in a trashy grindhouse movie in the '70s.  In other words, KILLING SEASON isn't good, but it's frequently entertaining for the wrong reasons, and you won't be bored.

In Bosnia in 1995, Emil Kovac (Travolta), a member of the Serbian paramilitary group the Scorpions, is shot in the head by American Col. Benjamin Ford (De Niro), the leader of a unit that's taken it upon themselves to execute a group of Serbian officers for their heinous crimes against the Bosnians.  18 years later, a recovered Kovac says he's "going hunting," and heads to a secluded area of Tennessee where a reclusive Ford lives in a cabin in the middle of Appalachian nowhere.  Ford, who's cut himself off from family and friends and lives with the daily pain of shrapnel still embedded in his leg and the psychological torment of both the Serbian war crimes he observed and the ones he and his soldiers committed, leads a solitary existence and doesn't recognize Kovac when he finds the Serbian--claiming to be Bosnian--hiking through the woods.  Kovac helps Ford with some engine trouble and Ford invites him to the cabin for dinner as the men bond over Bosnia, Jagermeister, and Johnny Cash.  Out hunting the next day, Kovac reveals his true intent when he shoots an arrow through Ford's leg, forces him to run a line through the hole, and strings him up.  Ford gets loose, and the men spend much of the remainder of the film pursuing one another, with the upper hand changing several times, mostly through stupidity and plot convenience.  Let's just say it's not every day that you see a movie with Robert De Niro digging shrapnel out of his own thigh or firing an arrow through John Travolta's face, then waterboarding him with a seemingly bottomless pitcher of lemon juice seasoned with an entire container of salt.


Who is the intended audience for this movie?  From scene to scene, it doesn't even feel like it's being made by the same filmmakers, nor does it seem like the stars are aware that they're still acting in the same movie.  Say what you want about Travolta's hilarious accent (and I haven't even touched upon his ludicrous glued-on beard), but at least he's consistent.  De Niro sounds like De Niro in half of his scenes, and in the other half, he's using a Southern accent.  KILLING SEASON feels like a film where no one involved was ever on the same page at the same time.  There's no way Daugherty's script could've possibly been as all-over-the-place as the resulting film turned out to be.  But like I said, it's never dull.  It's just hard to reconcile a serious, regular-sounding De Niro trying to express the pain of what he's seen and done with him resurrecting his Max Cady-from-CAPE FEAR drawl to gleefully taunt Travolta with "When life hands you lemons..." as a prelude to his lemonade vengeance.  That's something Freddy Krueger would say.  Why is it this movie?  And why is De Niro saying it?


Between the ridiculous facial hair, the graphic gore, the nonsensical plot elements (after Ford bails on his grandson's baptism party, why would his son, played in a few scenes by Milo Ventimiglia, and daughter-in-law drive three hours with their baby to surprise him?  Did they just leave everyone at their party?  No...the plot needs them to show up at his door so they can be threatened by Kovac), and De Niro and Travolta singing along to Johnny Cash in dueling bad accents, I can't figure out if KILLING SEASON is one of the year's worst dramas or best comedies.  It tries to have it too many ways and succeeds at none. It does work best when it's in action mode and reminiscent of Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Toro battling in William Friedkin's THE HUNTED (2003) and even Roy Scheider and Jurgen Prochnow duking it out in John Frankenheimer's underappreciated THE FOURTH WAR (1990), even though 69-year-old De Niro is obviously doubled in some of the more strenuous scenes.  And, being that it's from Cannon cover band Millennium/NuImage, it's mostly shot in Bulgaria and has the requisite unconvincing CGI from Bulgaria's Worldwide FX, though to their credit, the blood looks pretty wet here and not nearly as cartoonish as their work usually appears (but fear not...Worldwide's CGI fire is still the least convincing in the business).  True to its feeling like a modern-say exploitation throwback, KILLING SEASON is unusually short, with the closing credits rolling at the 77-minute mark, and poking along for an absurd ten minutes just to pad the running time.  The film is a waste of its stars, who almost certainly could've found a more worthy project to do together, though I can't help but think there's more to the story.  There's just an abundance of tell-tale signs of too many cooks in the kitchen.  But I gotta say, for everything that's working against him--the accent, the beard, his scalp looking like it's been smeared with Chia seeds--Travolta really commits to this thing.
 
 

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