After La haine (1995), multi-hyphenate Mathieu Kassovitz chose to revisit one of his prior short films, Assassins… (1992), and expand the characters while still staying grounded to the base story of an aging assassin who teaches a youth his trade - the art of the contract kill.
Kassovitz co-wrote, directed, and co-starred in Assassin(s) in 1997, but the film more or less disappeared from view except in Europe and Japan, never getting a North American release in theatres nor on video in spite of the critical success surrounding La haine.
The reason may not be due to a botched marketing campaign but a film that simply meanders and is slowed down by directorial nuances in scene after scene, culminating in a finale that simply closes with perfunctory nihilism.
Even more detrimental to the film’s potential success was the release of Richard Donner’s own hired gun thriller Assassins [M] (1995), not to mention the standard set by Luc Besson with Leon, aka The Professional (1994) – two vastly superior films about hired killers.
Kassovitz’ film feels like an earnest attempt to take the cutesy, melodramatic Besson concept of an oddball hitman (Leon) whose life is briefly enlightened by a pubescent orphan (Mathilda), and throw it into the trash bin. The tactic does work, but without any melodrama, there are no characters beyond emotionally withdrawn, frustrated people with shitty little lives.
The plot of Assassin(s) is somewhat complicated (a problem that’s chronic with most of Kassovitz’ feature-length directorial efforts). Max (Kassovitz) is a twentysomething wastrel living at home with his mom, and still sleeping in his old bedroom with unchanged posters and paraphernalia. One night he sneaks into a department store and steals videos, and as he ducks into the manager’s office to remove the incriminating surveillance camera tape, he finds the manager and an employee dead during a private backside encounter.
Max hangs around too long in the parking lot, causing Mehdi (Mehdi Benoufa), his young tagalong friend and partner in crime, to flee on the moped, stranding Max. Strolling to an isolated bus shelter, Max sees an old man quietly waiting for the bus, and strangely makes a note of where the old man gets off.
The next day Max hangs around the area and follows the old man into his flat, initially finding it empty, but soon confronted at gunpoint by Mr. Wagner (Michel Serrault), who fires live rounds as Max escapes through the broken window.
After Max is arrested, Wagner sees no reason to add charges to a punk likely to reoffend and waste taxpayers’ money, and the two part ways. The next evening, Max plays the surveillance tape from the store and sees Wagner was the triggerman in the store shooting. As he answers his mother’s dinner call, he finds Wagner in the house, invited by his mother for dinner so the family can address some kind of compensation.
Wagner asks Max to step outside for a walk, and he picks the kid’s brain about the neighbours. Suddenly Wagner sneaks into the porch of a home Max described as being owned by a lonely old man. After bashing the man in the head, he beckons Max inside, and over a few hours cajoles and obliges Max to be the triggerman in the senior’s murder – for reasons perhaps related to the department store shooting, or Wagner testing Max to see if the punk has what it takes to bend to his will.
Max does commit the killing (seen in the film’s opening, and revisited several times throughout the film), and Wagner realizes he may have a protégé to whom he can pass on his skills in contract kills, since the old man is apparently ill with an Alzheimer-like affliction.
Telling his mother he’s Mr. Wagner’s assistant, Max soon stays in Wagner’s apartment and begins a series of lessons, learning a trade the childless Wagner and his father passed on through each generation.
It’s around this period where the film’s tone moves from a still, realist film to half social drama, half low-frequency black comedy, and it becomes more peculiar when Max brings Mehdi on a job, and the young teen finishes a murder Max whimped out. Wagner feels betrayed and offended that Max brought in a minor, and he kills him, but before he can kill the teen, Mehdi has his gun already trained on Wagner, and the old man reasons perhaps he has a better protégé in the cold-blooded Mehdi.
Kassovitz frequently has his characters staring blankly at TVs and a span of ads (some directed by himself) and mindless TV crap, but it’s a motif that’s overplayed and forced, particularly once Medhi is brought into Wagner’s home.
In one scene, Mehdi plays a lengthy game of Quake, and he later passes a street corner lined with Quake posters – unsubtle jabs at the effects of mindless violence on the spongy brains of street youths.
There’s also a fake TV series Max watches, and Medhi later observes wherein the series morphs from banal sitcom to a surreal bloodbath that has one girl getting shot in the head, and the three boys stabbing and bludgeoning the other girl during a behind the counter gang rape.
Kassovitz is trying to tie together images and sounds of mindless violence in popular media (such as Tarsem’s Nike ad, where human players have an explosive match against horned devils) into some kind of social commentary, punctuated by characters lacking normal family relationships, love, or any sense of humanity, but it ‘s labored, and at times the symbolism is wielded with a sledgehammer, such as when Max can’t shoot his first solo target because his reflection in a limo’s black passenger window makes it appear he’s ‘killing himself.’
Kassovitz also preps Max as a martyr in Wagner’s mindless cause by having Max tormented by the sights and sounds of the old man’s killing, whereas Mehdi is a latent sociopath who blossoms once a gun is placed in his hand, and the thrill of the kill happens.
Wagner soon realizes orphan Mehdi isn’t his blank slate Max: he’s a teen, lacks any maturity or morality of any kind, and has no interest beyond TV and videogames. Moreover, Wagner’s Alzheimer or dementia episodes worsen, and unlike Max, Mehdi has no sympathy for him – a realization that causes Wagner to ‘formally’ retire.
That leaves Mehdi alone again, and without any mentor or friend, he takes his training and one of Wagner’s guns and commits a Columbine shooting at the street gates of his old high school.
Wagner, now in a thrifty retirement home, is alone again, and has joined the rank of Max’s first kill – an old man watching TV to kill time before his own natural (or unnatural) demise.
Wagner, moping in a cafeteria, watches a TV report of Mehdi’s rampage. Kassovitz holds on the a medium shot of a dismayed Wagner, and has a blurry figure resembling Max leaning into view before leaning back behind Wagner, and disappearing from the scene when Kassovitz moves the camera – a peculiar attempt to bring back Max as a fuzzy spiritual presence quietly passing judgment on the mentor who effectively ruined the lives of two young men that should’ve been the ones to decide whether to improve, stagnate or destroy themselves.
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Kassovitz’ assassin training montages border on clinical and veiled dark humour, but they still feel anti-Besson: de-sexed of visual action and pumped up score, and emphasizing the banality of a punk shown where to train a gun barrel to ensure a clean kill.
The training sequences with both protégés are only of importance in showing the contrast between Max and Mehdi because Wagner recaps his speech on the need for professional ethics, not butchery. Mehdi ultimately commits a combination of both on his own solo kill when he takes a clean shot, and then pumps the rest of the magazine into the cadaver after pausing to watch a collage of violent and pornographic images on the victim’s bedroom TV.
Assassin(s) would’ve been better served with a tighter edit and early script rewrite, because at 128 mins. the film lumbers along with a pacing that becomes just plain deadly.
Sometimes a 14 mins. short can’t be expanded into a two hour epic, which Assassin(s) isn’t in any way. It’s neither art film nor indulgent – just the first clear sign of the narrative challenges that would plague Kassovitz’ films, from the complex plotting in Crimson Rivers (2000), the incoherent mess that’s Gothika (2003), and the disastrous Babylon A.D. (2008).
As with Kassovitz’ directorial style, the sound design and visual images are striking, but he just can’t figure out how to pace and balance the tonalities in his work into something satisfying.
The British Region 2 DVD (released in 2008) is a bare bones release, whereas the Dutch DVD contains a stills and sketches, trailers, and featurette material – some of which were included on the Japanese soundtrack CD featuring Carter Burwell’s monothematic and seriously sparse score.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan