Skip to main content

Don’t ask me if it’s a just war. It’s just war.

Good Kill
(2014)

Andrew Niccol’s latest might be viewed as presenting the flipside to the earnest and venerable combatant approach of Eastwood’s American Sniper. Unfortunately, while Good Kill has a clear moral and political point of view, in contrast to Eastwood’s contextual ambivalence, it is every bit as clumsy in its storytelling.


Niccol has a knack for picking provocative subject matter, but his ability to show restraint and finesse in exploring these ideas has generally been patchy. He comes up short in Gattaca (eugenics) Lord of War (the arms trade), S1m0ne (the monster media machine) and In Time (the haves and have nots). Good Kill knows all the arguments about drone warfare. It even has Colonel Johns (Bruce Greenwood, gluing the film together) rehearsing them in an entirely unsubtle manner at every opportunity (“Make no mistake about it, this ain’t Playstation. We are killing people”). 


Co-pilot Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) inhabits the similarly obvious conscience role (the lily-livered liberal who even delivers the immortal “I didn’t sign up for this”) in response to her red-bloodedly patriotic colleagues Zimmer (Jake Abel) and Christie (Dylan Kenin). And then there’s becalmed Major Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke, making his third picture with Niccol), the on-the-surface rock but slowly-revealed burnt out. His moral fragmentation comes somewhere in the middle, as the ex “proper” pilot who just wants to get back in the cockpit of a fighter (“I don’t know what I am doing, but it’s not flying”).


Niccol makes some curious and ham-fisted choices. He’s keen to emphasise gradations of justification that don’t really fly (so to speak). At one end of the scale is CIA Langley (voiced by an unseen Peter Coyote), full of studied rhetoric but basically “collateral damaged be damned”. Anyone, anywhere in the Middle East may end up as an unfortunate casualty in the mission to eradicate the enemy. Women, children, funeral mourners, people gathered talking on a dusty road. At least the military has some standards in comparison, Niccol is saying. At least they (as in Colonel Johns) agonise over their actions and go home knowing their intentions were good (except those, like Zimmer and Christie who just want to kill anyone and everyone over there, lest they come over there and destroy everything America stands for).


On the far end is the actual “good kill”. At the climax, Egan, already demoted for purposefully fouling up a Langley mission, locks himself in the control centre and blows up the Afghan rapist who has been offending his and his fellow pilots’ sensibilities throughout  (even Zimmer averts his eyes, so what this guy is doing really is bad). It’s a triumphant moment. Egan has done right. Killed someone who really deserved it. Has he? That seems to be the message. Niccol even has the cynicism to pull out a particularly queasy moment of tension where Egan might have accidentally killed the rape victim too. But no, she’s okay. Phew. It might have served the message of the movie better if she had died. Instead Niccol encourages false uplift in a conclusion that is shamelessly emotionally manipulative.


It also makes the picture, hardly a model of restraint in the first place, seem all the more jarring and obvious in retrospect. The varied jargon used to distance the perpetrator from unprovoked acts of aggression (pre-emptive self defence is a particularly deceitful item), and avoid confessing to what is actually being ordered, initially seems quite piercing but becomes much less so as the picture progresses. 


Egan hits the bottle to like a dyed in the wool alcoholic but appears completely functional and quits with nary a withdrawal symptom. His home life dynamic (January Jones as his wife, in a big screen career that suggests her agent has something against her) is entirely clichéd, but it’s Hawke who is most problematic. He’s the stoic aviator-shades wearing seasoned serviceman, but he still carries the nervy air of his Todd Anderson from Dead Poets Society, only now slightly more desiccated.


Which isn’t to say the picture isn’t engaging. It is to be respected for being more economically told and more focussed than American Sniper. But it’s ultimately no more laudable. There is one aspect where Niccol wholly succeeds, and that’s the incongruity of the Vegas milieu from which these drone missions are fought. He convincingly portrays a life that is both repetitive and banal and psychologically and emotionally wearing. The pilots enter shipping crates in an expanse of sun-drenched tarmac for each shift, transported to a warzone thousands of miles away. They emerge into the calm of the Las Vegas desert, and then drive home to deceptively normal lives. 


This dissonance is palpable, and much more resonant than any of the verbalised arguments for and against in carrying the idea and question of just what this is. Killing with impunity, from the safety of, and divorce from, the battlefield. This might be presented as merely the latest stage in an incremental shift that has been occurring ever since the invention of the bow and arrow but, the more removed and detached the capability becomes (and the more casually civilian fatalities are brushed off), the less easy it is to frame an argument that satisfies such methods (be it legal war or illegal “but justifiable” incursion).


Niccol laces occasional moments of effective humour through the picture (“I blew away six Taliban in Pakistan today and now I’m going home to barbecue”, Egan tells a cashier; “Why do wear flight suits?” he asks Johns, genuinely baffled; at one point Zimmer opines that the reason they aim to kill so many Afghanis is that the alternative of torturing them would cost too much), but one can’t help think the surreality of this environment would have been better served by the kind of outright irreverence shown by Gregor Jordan in Buffalo Soldiers. Either that, or stripped right down to a minimal level, allowing the absurd ambience to do the talking rather than characters’ overstated interactions. Good Kill frequently feels thin and didactic despite a surfeit of ripe material to explore.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.

Ridley Scott Ridders Ranked
During the '80s, I anticipated few filmmakers' movies more than Ridley Scott's; those of his fellow xenomorph wrangler James Cameron, perhaps. In both cases, that eagerness for something equalling their early efforts receded as they studiously managed to avoid the heights they had once reached. Cameron's output dropped off a cliff after he won an Oscar. Contrastingly, Scott's surged like never before when his film took home gold. Which at least meant he occasionally delivered something interesting, but sadly, it was mostly quantity over quality. Here are the movies Scott has directed in his career thus far - and with his rate of  productivity, another 25 by the time he's 100 may well be feasible – ranked from worst to best.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

This is it. This is the moment of my death.

Fearless (1993)
Hollywood tends to make a hash of any exploration of existential or spiritual themes. The urge towards the simplistic, the treacly or the mawkishly uplifting, without appropriate filtering or insight, usually overpowers even the best intentions. Rarely, a movie comes along that makes good on its potential and then, more than likely, it gets completely ignored. Such a fate befell Fearless, Peter Weir’s plane crash survivor-angst film, despite roundly positive critical notices. For some reason audiences were willing to see a rubgy team turn cannibal in Alive, but this was a turn-off? Yet invariably anyone who has seen Fearless speaks of it in glowing terms, and rightly so.

Weir’s pictures are often thematically rich, more anchored by narrative than those of, say, Terrence Malick but similarly preoccupied with big ideas and their expression. He has a rare grasp of poetry, symbolism and the mythic. Weir also displays an acute grasp of the subjective mind-set, and possesses …

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.

Wasn't it her brother who murdered all those babysitters?

Halloween (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that you can keep going back to the same crumbling well and there'll still be a ready and willing (nostalgic) audience to lap up the results, at least for the first weekend. The critics seemed to like this sequel to the first movie, though, which expressly wipes out Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later – which also retconned out of existence everything aside from the first two movies. Mind you, the makers would do that, since both cover similar ground, while this Halloween ends up not being noticeably all that superior.