Whatever happened to David Fincher? In a word; Netflix. Fincher was and probably still is a top tier film-maker, but the medium he works in is streaming rather than cinema these days; he produced series House of Cards and Mindhunters, and helped establish the house style for Netflix programmes as well as the personal passion project of Hollywood biopic Mank. But it’s all something of a step down from the maker of such state-of-the-art cinema as Fight Club, Zodiac, Gone Girl and The Social Network, and this adaptation of a French graphic novel by Matz and Luc Jacamon reteams him with Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote the screenplay for Fincher’s breakout hit, Se7en. There’s no denying that film’s huge cultural impact, but you’ll look in vain for such advances in The Killer, which reworks various hoary assassin clichés with intermittent success.
‘Good luck with your Wordle!’ says The Killer (Michael Fassbender) in a rare moment of levity; this killer is a man of few words, except when he’s talking to the viewer at home, in which case, he has severe verbal diarrhoea. A hit-man film often starts with a ‘day-in-the-life’ scene setter, but The Killer’s rambling explanation of who he is and what he does takes up over twenty minutes of Fincher’s opening here as The Killer sets his sights on a Parisian wet job and delivers a Ted-talk of long-winded, self-promoting nihilism. ‘Forbid empathy. Empathy is weakness. Weakness is vulnerability,’ intones the Killer pretentiously after making a complete bodge of what he’s meant to be doing. The Killer flees the scene of the crime, dumps the evidence of his actions, and heads home; cue a selection of eight fancy overhead shots of his car driving through the fecund jungles of the Dominican Republic, only to find that his handlers got there first. Furious to find that his partner is a ‘civilian who got between the eyes and the prize,’ The Killer goes on a John Wick-style refresher course in bad-assery, retrieving his weapons cache from an underground hidey-hole and taking arms against a sea of troubles and picking off his adversaries, including Tilda bloody Swinton, one at a time while listening to eleven songs by The Smiths’ as mood music to get the killing done to.
Perhaps it feels a little incongruous to have Fassbender listening to Morrissey warbling on about what he saw last night on Channel 4 on Shoplifters of the World Unite, but it’s not the only detail that rings false here. The Killer is some kind of rock star assassin that doesn’t feel connected to any kind of real life other than spy movies; he says you don’t have to be smart to be a killer, and mentions a serial killer who couldn’t spell cat but managed to kill 49 victims because he was ‘conscientious’. But that philosophy doesn’t square with The Killer sporting loud Hawaiian shirts, a raver’s sunhat a la Brad Pitt in the Bullet Train, and using false names like Lou Grant and Sam Malone; you don’t have to have much cultural nous to know that either of these sitcom names will get you noticed anywhere you go. And while it’s a sub-Hitchockian gag to have a passer-by unaware of the Killer’s purpose say ‘Need any help getting rid of that body?’ as our protagonist marks time with a binned corpse in a lift, it’s hard to understand why anyone might say that when there’s no body visible.
The Killer provides Fincher with the opportunity to flex some underused muscles of late, with men in shades, splashy, violent fights, killings on exotic locations, and some fun professional gallows-humour moments; it’s always good to ’bring your own potato’ if you’re thinking of purchasing guns, while it feels a little irresponsible to put up an on-screen internet listings ad for ‘fob copiers’ in a Fight Club style. But The Killer’s proposed momentum eventually wilts through an overwritten script, with Swinton’s ‘bear story’ occupying a similar metaphorical space as the Orson Welles ‘scorpion and the frog’ parable in Touch of Evil and Drive; such earnestly amateur spec script polish isn’t a good look for anyone, least of all Fassbender, whose run of duds reaches back over a decade and includes the dullest Macbeth imaginable. ‘The only life path is the one behind you,’ is the kind of birthday card moral which Fassbender drones on about, cracking his own neck when he could be cracking the necks of his foes. Despite a few savage moments, The Killer feels like Fincher treading water; his Netflix deal may have freed him from the responsibilities of pleasing a cinematic audience, but that creative freedom hasn’t loosened anything particularly zeitgeisty about this annoyingly familiar tale of an assassin’s creed, full of sound and fury, but signifying absolutely nothing.