“The history of man is defined by war, and war by the men who fight it.” So begins the voice-over for Hitman: Agent 47, the new film based on the IO Interactive video-game series. Then the voice helpfully adds, “What if we could create a better man? Someone did.” You could revise the thought somewhat: The history of action movies is defined by those so-called better men (and, occasionally, women). And, whether they’re of the Neesonian or Johanssonite special-set-of-skills variety or the Schwarzenegger-esque indestructible-killer-cyborg type, these superior beings are in turn defined by the mere mortals around them. Think of Sarah Connor in the Terminator films or Liam Neeson’s endless supply of victimized family members. You’re only as good as what you’re protecting or what you’re trying to destroy.
Hitman: Agent 47 is the kind of movie that revels in the superior-being-ness of its characters, without giving much thought to anyone else’s vulnerability. There’s Agent 47 (Rupert Friend), an expressionless, genetically engineered super-assassin (they’ve programmed all pain, remorse, regret, love, kindness, humor, levity, anger, sadness, kittens, and hair out of him); John Smith (Zachary Quinto), a seemingly more amiable (or at least more human) but no less deadly agent, working for some shady CIA-like outfit called the Syndicate; and Katia (Hannah Ware), a woman whose long-absent father was the geneticist who developed these super-soldiers before abandoning the project and going into hiding. Smith and 47 both hope that Katia will lead them to dear old dad: One side wants him because he can help them build more supermen; the other side wants him because he knows their weaknesses and can stop them. I’ll keep vague about who is actually on which side; the film does have several twists that, however idiotic, are probably worth preserving for when you’re drunk at 1 a.m. and this thing happens to come across cable. But know this: All three of the main characters have been bio-engineered in different ways; they’re all basically superhuman. Maybe this works in video games (I’ve never played any of the Hitman games), but on-screen it reduces the stakes to an almost comical degree.
Still, the film might have gotten away with it, had its action scenes not been so choppy and uninspired. The director Aleksander Bach comes from the commercial world, and he clearly knows how to put a proficient, familiar sheen on everything. His action sequences are endlessly derivative, but display little of the personality that distinguished their forebears — none of the visceral bloodlust of Taken, or the dancerly abstraction of John Woo’s films, or the colorful, creative brutality of John Wick (although that film’s co-director David Leitch has a second unit credit here). It’s all play-acting: When Friend’s Agent 47 pulls out two guns and fires in either direction, he’s meant to look like a badass, but it all feels like a pose. He resembles a little boy playing make-believe more than a convincing killing machine.
Agent 47 occasionally makes handsome use of its globe-trotting locations — including the Gardens by the Bay Park in Singapore — and even manages to fit in a nice wide shot of mayhem here and there. But the film’s generic blandness wears on you. It feels like one of those slick, expensive ads you see in movie theaters before the trailers: the ones that will give us some polished but nonspecific bit of action before revealing themselves to be an M&M or Audi commercial, or a warning to silence your cell phones or whatever. No joke, I spent various points in the movie having a quiet chuckle at how now would be the perfect time for a phone to ring somewhere and for the characters to look in befuddlement out at the audience. It wouldn’t have felt so out of place. Hitman: Agent 47, much like its anonymous title, is a film pretending to be an action movie instead of the real thing. It might as well be a commercial. Or, hell, a video game.