‘Killing Season’: Slaughtering intelligence

July 9, 2013

killing season

For years, I’ve read about the so-called “Black List” of screenplays: allegedly great scripts which, for some reason, Hollywood ignores because it would rather make dumb crap like “The Lone Ranger.”

Then I see a movie like “Killing Season,” written by Evan Daugherty, a script billed as one of those “Black List” escapees. And I think, “Hmmm, just another hype.”

Because, well, two things:

1) “Killing Season” is laughably bad.

2) Daugherty, it turns out, also wrote “Snow White and the Huntsman,” one of the year’s many unnecessary fairy-tale riffs. His other credits include the upcoming Michael Bay version of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (eagerly awaited by no one) and “Divergent,” which looks like another attempt at bottling that “Hunger Games” lightning.

But I won’t tar Daugherty with his previous work – just as it’s unfair to judge “Killing Season” on the previous films of its director, Mark Steven Johnson. Every film should be judged on its own merits.

Still, past is prologue, right? And Johnson’s prologue includes writing the overrated sentimental comedy “Grumpy Old Men,” as well as directing such disposable trash as “Daredevil,” “Ghost Rider” and a couple of others.

So, again, screw the Black List.

As for “Killing Season”? Well, this is a sadistically violent and over-the-top tale, which I saw at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last week. If I hadn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this review, because the only press screening in the U.S. is Wednesday (7/10/13) night and reviews are embargoed online until 6PM Thursday.

The film takes the logo for Jagermeister – the antlered deer-head with a cross hovering over it (Bambi died for our sins?) – as its own. Which indicates either that you should imbibe a lot of before seeing this film – or that stars Robert De Niro and John Travolta were downing shots between set-ups to get through the shooting days.

Travolta himself introduced the festival screening I saw and warned the crowd that the film was violent “but not gratuitously so.” That apparently included the scene where Travolta himself gets shot through both cheeks with an arrow, which embeds in a door, leaving him hanging as unhappily as a butterfly pinned to a specimen tray. That’s just before De Niro (who ostensibly is the good guy) waterboards him with a mixture of lemon juice and salt. Lesson: When life gives you lemons, go ahead and torture someone.

The skimpy plot is set up by a prologue in which Americans solve the Balkans war of the early 1990s by sending in troops to slaughter the evildoers. That includes lining up the worst malefactors and executing them in the woods. Because, you know, America.

Cut to 20 years later. De Niro is Benjamin Ford, a recluse who lives in a cabin in the Tennessee section of the Appalachians. Won’t go to his only grandson’s christening, spends his time taking wildlife photos of elk doing mating battle, obviously haunted by his experiences of war – you get the picture. (Never mind that he’s obviously 20 years too old to have fought in the Balkans.)

Did I say haunted? He’s the picture of mental health compared to Emil Kovac (Travolta), who Ford shot in that little execution line-up in the prologue, but who lived to tell the tale – and seek revenge. He and Ford meet cute when Kovac pops up on the deserted forest road where Ford’s jeep breaks down in a rainstorm, and fixes Ford’s car. So Ford invites him back to the cabin for an evening of drinking – you guessed it – Jagermeister, beverage of kings and breakfast of champions.

After exchanging war stories and drinking, Ford invites Kovac elk hunting the next day, using bows and arrows because, you know, testosterone. But we all know what Kovac is really hunting (and you’d be a killer, too, if you had to walk around with the kind of neck beard Travolta wears in the film). Ford, of course, has serious skills in the Daniel Boone department as well, though he can’t seem to kill this particular bear.

It’s the usual back-and-forth, reversal after reversal, including a car accident (sans seatbelts) with that jeep rolling down a mountain and both actors emerging undamaged enough to fight some more. In between are a lot of fuzzy-headed generalities about the nature of war and what it does to good men and how the tribal hatreds in the Balkans go back centuries and…

I’d call “Killing Season” a cat-and-mouse game. But that would insult felines and rodents, both of which are much smarter than this movie.

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