David Fincher’s latest film, The Killer, is an adaptation of the French comic book of the same name by Matz and Luc Jacamon. It asks the basic question—what if the secret assassin world of John Wick was actually boring and full of working stiffs?
The Killer stars Michael Fassbender as an unnamed assassin who spends the first twenty minutes of the film doing mind-numbingly boring surveillance while lecturing us in voice over about what it takes to be a top assassin like him. When he misses his shot—honestly, the funniest joke in the film—he is forced to go on a Wick-ian revenge spree after his girlfriend is tortured as punishment for failing his assignment. (Not a full fridging, but still wishing writers, especially dudes, came up with better motivations for men than harming women.)
The Killer is Fincher at his B-movie grungiest, a relatively lean two-hour film that follows the assassin through his methodical retribution plan. It’s surprisingly funny, with Fassbender’s dry intonation in voice over perfectly complimenting his character’s deadpan countenance on screen. The character speaks little, but his inner monologue never stops as he tracks down everyone who crossed him. Instead of a sexy, glamorous adventure, it’s a trip through various airports, car rental counters, coach class flights, and increasingly obvious pseudonyms. The assassin goes through the necessary motions, efficient, workmanlike, his dangerous job rendered down to a series of mundane nuts and bolts.
There is humor in it, but also an undercurrent of how all the things we think make us safe are just illusions, security theater easily avoided by a determined enough person. Most of the assassin’s effort is spent just in waiting, watching, looking for the little moments that override that security theater—a food delivery guy prompting a secure garage to open, for instance, or a key card duping device being available on Amazon, complete with overnight shipping. There are some well-written jokes in The Killer but most of the humor is situational, resulting from these lapses caused by ordinary, day-to-day living. If anything, far from hindering the efforts of someone like the assassin, modern living makes his job easier.
A downside of the film, though, is how bloody loud it is. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is constantly grinding away, often layered with diegetic noise that makes it hard to hear some of the dialogue. (There is, however, a good Nine Inch Nails joke.) This is a problem I expect with Christopher Nolan, not David Fincher, and when there is so little dialogue to begin with, missing lines because of the soundtrack is annoying. There are some great scenes between Fassbender and the likes of Charles Parnell and Tilda Swinton, but it’s somewhat hindered by the over-the-top sound.
But there are some great action sequences, and while the film is anti-stylish on purpose—this is the worst dressed, most haggard cinematic assassin in recent memory, with the ugliest beach villa—it’s still a good-looking film in that it is well shot, with well composed action scenes, and solid performances from a good cast. It’s too damn loud, but The Killer is in the vein of Fincher’s 1997 film The Game and Fight Club, his other grimy sort-of comedy about the pitfalls of modern life. In this world, bad people do bad things, with little morality to get in the way of anyone or anything. There is only what can be done and what you’re willing to do, and even globe-trotting assassins have sh-tty bosses. The Killer is a bleakly funny take on both the assassin genre and the modern world.
This review was published during the SAG-AFTRA strike of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of actors. The Killer is now playing exclusively in theaters and will stream on Netflix from November 10, 2023.