Millennium Entertainment // 2013 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 26th, 2013
The purest form of war is one on one.
Any time ethnic and national identities are severed and the maps of a country redrawn by a foreign power, we can expect bloodshed to follow. The twentieth century is rife with examples of ethnic bloodshed precipitated by the conjunction of internal conflicts with external control. The situation in Southeastern Europe after the fall of the USSR is a perfect example, and much of the 1990s was spent under the shadow of war involving the control of former states like Yugoslavia. One of the results of this conflict was massive bloodshed in Serbia and a lingering sense of dis-ease as the word genocide was used often in the region. Killing Season tries to cash in on these ghosts, bringing a proverbial chicken home to roost, but the result is a film that doesn't work despite the talent behind it.
Ben (Robert De Niro, Heat) lives a quiet life in a cabin in the mountains of the Appalachian region after retiring from the military. Into his quiet life of nature and photography comes Emil (John Travolta, Pulp Fiction), a former Serbian soldier who hides a dark past. Though the pair initially seems to be friendly, Emil's intentions are revealed to be buried in Ben's past and the two men will continue a fight that neither of them started.
The critic's job is made tremendously easy when a single finger can be pointed at the flaw in a failing movie. "It's the script," we get to say, with a gleam in the eye, and the rest of the review follows naturally, allowing us to praise cast or director. We get to seem magnanimous in our praise because we've eviscerated the offending element. The problem with The Killing Season is that it would take a whole hand to point to all the problems going on. More problematically, each of the problems only reinforces the other.
Let's start with the cast. It's a brilliant idea to give Robert De Niro and John Travolta these roles. Both are powerhouse actors who've taken to a bit of stretching in their later careers. Ignoring the idea of casting Travolta as a Serbian soldier, the problem is that both actors are also very busy, very well-paid actors as well. To really do justice to a film like this, they need to be on hand for weeks and weeks at a time, and neither man seems willing to commit to that. So we get a lot of scenes with too many scenes with only one of them, or with what might be a stand-in. This isn't a Pacino/De Niro in heat kind of thing, either, where their meeting is so much the sweeter for being brief.
This problem does highlight another issue with the film: the budget. I get the feeling that if this flick had been released in 1997, with the Bosnian/Serbian crisis still fresh in the rearview and a big-name director at the helm (think Ridley Scott and Black Hawk Down), then this would have been a prestige actioner. Instead, we get a direct-to-video flick that could have been made by anybody and with any cast without harming or helping the movie much. The low budget limits the available material here, though. There's no money to keep the stars on hand for a long time to give them lots of scenes together. Also, the action scenes feel rushed rather than the elaborate affairs that a bigger budget would have allowed.
The budget also highlights the limits in the direction. We're talking about a film that stages a major conflict between two older actors. The shaky cam, fast-fight stuff works in a Fast and Furious flick, but De Niro and Travolta need something different. No one can claim that director Mark Steven Johnson has been pigeonholed; he's directed both When in Rome and Ghost Rider. However, his approach here just doesn't work with the material constraints of the budget and the actors he's working with.
Which brings us finally, to the script. Killing Season wants desperately to have something to say about the effects of war. There's talk of genocide, comparisons between war and hunting, and commentary on the animal nature of human interactions. It tries to elevate a standard action flick into something more, and it's a worthy effort. The rest of the elements don't really line up and instead the attempts at gravity feel out of place. The weighty themes overburden a film already near-drowning and turn it from disappointing to laughable.
At least this DVD is okay. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is generally pleasing, with good detail and sold color saturation. The only issue stems from the source, which was shot day-for-night in the final act. That gives everything a weird blue cast and robs the blacks of any detail. It's how the film is supposed to look, but it won't please home-theater enthusiasts. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a bit more impressive, offering lots of rumble during the early war scenes and plenty of ambient effects during the later hunts. Dialogue is generally clean and clear.
The disc's lone extra is a two-and-a-half-minute making of that features a few brief interview segments interspersed with clips from the film.
To be completely fair to the film, it's not particularly painful. Everyone is just competent enough to make viewers wish it was better. Thus, it plays more like a missed opportunity than a bad movie. It'll be one of those films that ends up on a streaming service or late-night cable where every day a few more unsuspecting viewers will be lured by the big-name cast into a decent, but ultimately disappointing, action flick. It could be worse.
Killing Season could have been more than a forgettable direct-to-video action film, but every element seems to conspire to keep the film from rising above mediocrity. Fans of the actors may get a kick out of seeing them in the rough Appalachian setting, but only those truly desperate for an action film should give this one a chance.
Guilty of wasting its stars.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R