Hitman – Agent 47 looks and feels like exactly what it is: a film adaptation of a video game. That said, it’s one of the better adaptations that’s come from Hollywood in recent years thanks to some relatively innovative and engaging action choreography, well-conceived set pieces, and some truly impressive cinematography that takes full advantage of the film’s exotic locales. Sure, there’s not depth to it, but what you do get certainly looks great and is never boring.
As we learn in the film’s admittedly heavy-handed opening exposition, during the Cold War a program to develop genetically-modified humans for the purpose of creating virtually unstoppable “agents” found success thanks to the work of one brilliant scientist, Dr. Litvenko (Ciarán Hinds), who shortly thereafter used his considerable genius to disappear off the radar of the world’s governments in order to keep the secrets of his process just that: secret.
In the present day, one particular product of the program, whose only name is “47” (Rupert Friend), is on a mission to find a young woman who may be the link to finding Litvenko and potentially restarting the “Agent” program. He’s not alone in his search — a powerful biotech corporation, Syndicate International, has its own operatives out looking for Litvenko and the woman, operatives which 47 calmly and methodically mows down in order to stay one step ahead of their efforts.
The object of their search, Katia (Hannah Ware), is herself searching for Litvenko, only she has no idea who he is or what he’s done — she only knows him from fragmented memories, and hopes that he can answer questions about why she’s always in survival mode, why she seems to have an extrasensory ability to perceive threats to her life moments before they actually happen. She finds unexpected help from a stranger calling himself “John Smith” (Zachary Quinto), who shows up just in time to whisk Katia away from 47 and provide key pieces of information to aid Katia in her quest. But just who is Smith, really, and is she really a target of 47, or does he have other plans for her? The answers to these questions and more all come as the principals exchanges gunfire and fisticuffs, change sides and reveal true natures and agendas, and eventually fight for their lives within the walls of the Syndicate’s vast and über-modern headquarters, their own futures as well as the future of the Agent program all hanging in the balance.
This is the second time that film makers have attempted to translate the success of the Hitman video game series to the big screen. The first, 2007’s Hitman, starring Timothy Olyphant and Olga Kurylenko, was a drab, uninspired and cheap-looking affair which was anything but memorable, but still apparently was successful enough at the box office to merit a second go-around. Though the previous film and this new one share the same titular character, Agent 47, and the same screenwriter, Skip Woods (The A-Team, Swordfish), that’s truly all they have in common, and that’s a very good thing.
Director Aleksander Bach, making his feature film debut here, brings an entirely different and relatively fresh vision to how this particular Agent 47 mission plays out, one built around slick, eye-popping visuals, fast-moving and visceral fight scenes and chases, and a strong sense of location, as the two primary locations for the film, Berlin and Singapore, each are fully utilized in terms of their particular character and flavor. Bach seems to approach the staging of each of the film’s set pieces with a video game in mind, creating challenges that escalate in difficulty as the film progresses in order for the characters to further explore and display their unique gifts, an approach that makes complete sense considering the film’s source material. In addition, in order to best bring to life Bach’s ideas for the film’s many gun battles and fights, the production utilizes the talents of 87-11 Action Design, the stunt production company primarily responsible for the stylish action audiences enjoyed in last summer’s sleeper hit John Wick. Though what audiences get here in Hitman – Agent 47 doesn’t quite deliver the same heights of fun that Wick does, it’s pretty close; John Wick fans and fans of action films in general should walk away from this film relatively pleased, or at least not regretting the price of admission.
Where Hitman: Agent 47 fails to deliver is, of course, in the area of plot and character depth, though there is a clear effort in the script by Woods and fellow screenwriter Michael Finch (Predators) to give each character some scenery to chew on, some mystery to add nuance to their characters and fuel on-screen tension between the action scenes. Their script is full of well-worn action thriller tropes and predictable outcomes, but one very good choice they make in terms of the film’s dramatic focus is to make Katia the film’s true protagonist, rather than 47, who for all that style and lethal skill is a bland character even when played with conviction by talented actors like Olyphant in the first film and Rupert Friend (Showtime’s “Homeland“) here. English actress Hannah Ware (Starz’s “Boss“) brings weight and credibility to Katia’s emotional arc through the film; she makes things fun to watch as she learns more about herself and grows more formidable as an adversary. Her vulnerability and volatile emotions play well off of Friend’s unflappable, stone-faced portrayal of 47, as does the work turned in by Zachary Quinto, who just seems to be having a grand old time not having to wear Spock ears and a Starfleet uniform.
All that said, there’s just not a whole lot to this story and these characters for the performers to work with, which will, no doubt, be a turn-off to anyone not impressed by slick action choreography and stylized gunplay, and so Hitman – Agent 47 isn’t likely to make much of an impression outside of pure action movie fans. Without a doubt, it lacks the subversive humor of Kingsman: The Secret Service and the sophistication of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation that helped those two be breakout hits outside of the action genre, and so the fact that its coming to theaters with two films in recent memory doesn’t do this production any favors. But in and of itself, within the boundaries of its genre and the expectations one might have for a movie based on a game franchise, there’s a lot to enjoy here, and if you’re fan of this sort of material, it’s worth your while to give it a shot.
Hitman – Agent 47
Starring Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciarán Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, Angelababy. Directed by Aleksander Bach.
Running Time: 96 minutes
Rated R for sequences of strong violence, and some language.