Finally, a movie has come along that actually uses a fabulous piece of music from the trailer in the actual film. I often wonder why that doesn’t happen more often. When the music referred to is a heartbreakingly beautiful version of “Ave Maria”, then it’s even better. As musical openings go, even though they’re completely different in nature, it’s the most dynamic this year along with “Pop goes my heart” at the start of Music & Lyrics. The rest of “Hitman” is not quite as involving, but it’s definitely worth a good look. The director, Frenchman Xavier Gens, opens with a shady organization training children from birth to become ultra-efficient assassins, under the blessing of what seems to be a secret branch of the Church. With the heavenly “Ave Maria” and a somber score during evocative early scenes, several years later, the film starts on a vibe of gloomy existentialism that’s only briefly evoked thereafter. Our title hero, Agent 47 (Tim Olyphant), is the best of his kind. In an early scene at a bar, when agent 47 is asked for his name, he excuses himself and just walks away. “The place I was raised, they didn’t give us names, he says later. They gave us numbers. Mine was number 47.”

I don’t know much about the game, but my feeling is that long-time fans will like this adaptation, as will fans of good action flicks. After the opening sequence, the film is book ended with a discussion between 47 and Interpol agent Mike Whittier (Dougray Scott), who’s been tenaciously pursuing him for three years, essentially making the film a flashback. The key question that 47 asks Whittier is enigmatic, in a very good way – it is directly connected to the situation, and a reflection of the calculating pragmatism of 47. This leads to an ending which may be interpreted as disappointingly vague or just about perfect; I stand close to the middle, hedging slightly towards the latter.

The film delivers on the action front: 47 makes a thrilling escape from a hotel, and the sabre fight against three fellow agents is a show-stopping, tightly choreographed affair. While the story by Skip Woods (Swordfish) is pretty elaborate, even a little confusing when it comes to political intrigue, it unfolds rather seamlessly. Beyond being chased by Whittier, Agent 47 is hounded by the Russian secret service after a frame-up in which he was ordered to kill Russian President Mikhail Belicoff (Ulrich Thomsen). When 47 is told there was a witness, a prostitute called Nika (Ukrainian knockout Olga Kurylenko), he smells a rat and takes off with her, to put it gently –it’s more or less a kidnapping- and starts looking for answers. An abused woman whose services were bought by Belicoff, Nika has held on to enough spunk to be saucy and flirty, despite dire circumstances. She develops an intriguing, unusual rapport with 47, who treats her either with vested attention (“We need to buy you a new dress”) or twisted efficiency (when she keeps bugging him after he brought her breakfast and just wants to take a nap, he says “Stop talking, or I’ll put you back in the trunk”). The brutal ending to their dinner date, and more precisely the fallout, is a little funny but also a little sad. It’s the kind of scene that gives the film a layer of substance that goes a long way. Nika’s relationship with 47 straddles a line between thankfulness, possibly even desire, and profoundly hating his guts. You’d hate the guy too if he made you ride twice in the trunk – including with a dead body the first time. “Don’t be dramatic, he tells the furious damsel after he lets her out of there the second time. I got rid of the body.” Oh well, then.

Kurylenko (Paris je t’aime) has a great presence and wonderfully expressive eyes. Olyphant is well know for his starring role in “Deadwood”, but I also really liked his work in Go (1999), The Girl Next Door (2004) and Catch and Release (2007). He has a bit of a clipped delivery, well measured, and again shows his knack for speaking softly but firmly. Scott (Mission: Impossible II) hams it up just a bit; it’s fun watching Whittier thumb his nose in no uncertain terms at FSB agent Yuri Marklov, personified proficiently by Robert Knepper (“Prison Break”). Kurylenko and Olyphant work subtlety and discreet interplay into their relationship, which is partly why some will feel the ending should be more conclusive. The emotional high point of the film is when Nika, with searing pain in her voice, begs 47 to “Please… stop.”, after she’s seen more than enough violence. “She saved your life” is 47’s benevolent remark to the man on the ground, hinting at a level of soul searching that doesn’t really materializes. “Hitman” sometimes feels like an empty vessel type of shoot’em up (the Istanbul massacre and the destruction of the cathedral are outrageous), but it has a good story, dazzling action and a surprisingly compelling central relationship.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay