Some of the violence in Mark Steven Johnson’s Killing Season is farfetched. The ending is a hokey bid for a feel-good spin in an otherwise nasty movie. Yet this tale of two old soldiers–one American, one Serbian–battling it out in the Smoky Mountains is surprisingly watchable.They proceed to torture one another via physical and mental means akin to those seen in films with Saw in the title.Benjamin Ford (Robert De Niro) saw terrible things during the war in Bosnia. Now he spends his time living alone in a cabin in the mountains, estranged from his family. He reads Hemingway. He stays away from people. Then Emil Kovac (John Travolta) appears, helping him fix his truck after it breaks down in a rainstorm. After a night of drinking and listening to hillbilly music, Kovac talks Ford into a hunting trip in the mountains. Both are bow and arrow enthusiasts. But Kovac, a former member of a Serbian death squad, has an ulterior motive. Ford wounded him in Bosnia, forcing Kovac to spend years learning to walk again. Now he wants to see how they match up man to man, alone with their weapons of choice. They proceed to torture one another via physical and mental means akin to those seen in films with Saw in the title.
If it sounds like a formula, that’s because it is a formula. Some might watch this movie and write it off as a reheated Chuck Norris script. But it’s the stuff that happens in between the ugly violence that makes the movie worth your time. True, the film is dumbed down a bit because contemporary producers won’t make a movie unless blood is pouring from the screen, but the first half in which the two banter and tease each other is sort of interesting and easily the high point of Even Daugherty’s screenplay. We never quite know what Kovac is up to, and the slight tension between Kovac and Ford feels like a scene in a Harold Pinter play where two old adversaries size each other up. If the rest of the movie feels like Hell in the Pacific meets First Blood, well, so be it. Johnson renders the cat-and-mouse games between Ford and Kovac with much suspense.He becomes, in that instant, a living piece of old-school Americana. John Wayne or Charlton Heston couldn’t have looked any better.The average person couldn’t survive the physical traumas showcased in this movie, but Johnson is trying to create something mythical. His past movies include Daredevil and Ghost Rider, so realism isn’t necessarily his forte. Still, there’s something about Killing Season that makes me think he’s on to something. There’s a scene near the end where Ford stands on a mountain top, a Winchester rifle in his hands. He becomes, in that instant, a living piece of old-school Americana. John Wayne or Charlton Heston couldn’t have looked any better. (And is it just a coincidence that Daugherty named the character “Ford”–perhaps after John Ford, the director of many classic westerns?)
Johnson with cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. make the mountain scenery look rough and beautiful. The musical score by Christopher Young is winsome. This all helps set up a great line for Kovac, who says that his country is beautiful too, but that there’s an invisible layer of blood that only he can see. A good line, no doubt.
In fact, enjoyed much of Travolta’s lines in this movie. As Kovac, Travolta looks quite butch with a chinstrap beard, and his single-minded determination to kill Ford is chilling. He’s a believable villain, marching through the woods like Yul Brynner as the robot gunslinger in West World, but he also has quirks. At one point he sings Johnny Cash songs in a Serbian accent. Travolta has had a career of incredible highs and lows, and in recent years he’s suffered through some box office bombs and personal troubles. A familiar face in the tabloids, it’s easy to forget that he’s a capable and adventurous actor. His Kovac reminds us.There will be many who feel De Niro, now 70, is too old for this kind of a movie. And perhaps they’re right, but for the rest of us it’s nice to see that the old brawler still has a few rounds left in him.There was a time when each new De Niro movie was greeted like an event. He was saddled early with the dreaded “best actor of his generation” tag, and during the 1970s and 1980s critics and moviegoers couldn’t wait to see what he’d do next. In recent years, though, some almost wish he’d stop making movies. Routine cop dramas and dumb comedies fill his bank accounts, but do nothing for his legacy. There was a return to form in Being Flynn (2012), in which he played a loudmouthed, unpublished novelist who ends up homeless. As Benjamin Ford in Killing Season, he seems motivated yet again. There’s a brief scene early in the film in which he tells his son that he won’t be able to attend his grandson’s baptism. He gives quick, light answers, but we can see the pain in his eyes. It’s a great little scene performed by a master actor. There will be many who feel De Niro, now 70, is too old for this kind of a movie. And perhaps they’re right, but for the rest of us it’s nice to see that the old brawler still has a few rounds left in him.
Killing Season is playing at select theaters and on various VOD services.
Run time: 90 minutes