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FIRST KILL (2017) review

July 20, 2017

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written by: Nick Gordon
produced by: Randall Emmett, George Furla and Mark Stewart
directed by: Steven C. Miller
rated: R (for violence and language)
runtime: 97 min.
U.S. release date: July 21, 2017 (AMC Woodridge 18, Woodridge, IL & VOD)

 

If you’ve been wondering where Anakin Skywalker and John McClane have been, look no further than Granville, Ohio. Apparently McClane is now a sheriff in the small town east of Columbus and has recently run into successful stock brocker Skywalker and his wife and son as he returns to his roots for a family trip away from the big city. What I’m getting at is it’s kind of hard not to think of the two characters Hayden Christensen and Bruce Willis are best known for while watching the mostly bland and predictable action thriller “First Kill” (the generic title is a good indication whether or not this movie is worth your time), the latest from B-movie director Steven C. Miller, who has made a name for himself making VOD crap, populated by a repeat assembly of actors. “Kill List” isn’t putrid, like Miller’s “Arsenal” from earlier this year, but it certainly doesn’t hold up well overall.

Unfortunately, Willis has popped up in two of Miller’s previous awful action flicks, “Extraction” and “Marauders”. These movies may get a theatrical release and if they do it’ll be one, maybe two, suburban theaters at the same time they’re released on VOD. Each time Willis looks tired and bored, which is too bad, but let’s face it, the last good roles he had was in Rian Johnson’s “Looper” and in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom”, both released in 2012. Since then, Willis hasn’t been picky, but most of his movies have been hard to find for reasons just mentioned. On the flipside, Christensen’s post “Star Wars” movies have mostly been unmemorable. In fact, most people would be hard-pressed to list off his movies after “Revenge of the Sith”. Maybe he doesn’t have alimony payments.

I’m at a loss as to what these two actors saw in this screenplay from Nick Gordon, but it certainly wasn’t much to work with. The fact that they said “yes” and committed to it is a reminder that sometimes acting is just like any other job – sometimes you just show up and go through the motions. Miller shot “First Kill” in thirteen days, which is impressive, but then again, it’s not too surprising since there’s not much to it.

 

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As stated above, Christensen plays a stock brocker named Will who works in downtown Columbus, Ohio. It’s a part written as a typical pre-occupied, stressed-out corporate exec and our intro to the character doesn’t give us much more beyond such a stereotypical characterization. When Will’s doctor wife, Laurie (Megan Leonard), calls to let him know that their 11-year-old son, Danny (newcomer Ty Shelton), was physically bullied at school once again, he seems bothered by such news and eventually picks his son up from school after some bemoaning. Real nice.

Will decides to take the whole family for a trip to his hometown, hoping his son’s first hunting trip will bond them and toughen him up. The first person they meet in town is Sheriff Howell (Willis), who knew Will’s parents and gives him a welcome back greeting and a warning to be cautious due to some “bank activity” in town recently. Hmmm.

Much to Laurie’s dismay, Will teaches Danny how to handle, maintain and shoot again, stressing “Safety Safety Safety”, but instead of catching a white tail out in the woods, the pair stumble upon a heated exchange between two guys in the near distance. Will spots them first and tries to hide both himself and Danny on the other side of a barn, yet still withing eye-shot of these two figures, one of which is pointing a gun and shouting at the other one. The gun-toting guy tosses a key that lands right near Danny’s footsteps and as they peak to look what happens next, the other guy pulls out a gun and shoots, injuring the guy who just tossed the key.

Realizing that they’re in a dire situation here and figuring these guys are probably criminals, Will readies his hunting rifle for protection, telling Danny to stay put. But once the shooter hears some activity over by the barn, Danny freaks and runs, leaving Will with no choice but to fatally gun him down in self-defense. Upon closer look, Will notices that the dead guy is wearing a badge – we’ll later learn this is a local cop named Charlie (Shea Buckner “Marauders”) – and realizes there’s more going on here. Knowing the other guy is still alive, but injured, Will and Danny take the criminal with them back to their aunt’s cabin so Laurie can attend the guy’s wound. Laurie is understandably confused and even moreso, when she learns that her husband has shot a cop.

 

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After treating the wound, Laurie leaves to get help and by the time she returns, Will, Danny and the injured guy she just treated are pealing off in an SUV.  While she was gone, the injured guy, Levi (Gethin Anthony “Game of Thrones”), awakens and holds a curious Danny hostage, stating he only wants the key. (Obviously, the key leads to the money the two guys were shouting over, which is related to a recent bank robbery gone awry). Since Will knows where the key is as well, he persuades Levi that they’ll all go. What? No note for the wife. Geez!

Things get even more complicated (both the situation and the plot – over-complicated and convoluted in the case of the plot) when another cop, Richie (William DeMeo, over-acting out of left field with a Bronx accent), starts firing shots as Will leads Levi to the location while Danny remains in the vehicle. More shots are fired, confusion mounts, Levi panicks and takes off with Danny in tow.

Up until now, the action sequences had some emotional resonance to them, which is not something one would expect from a B-movie, straight-to-VOD flick. You can feel the alarm in that initial encounter with the two shouting guys in the rain and what transpires immediately involving the tossed key, but once Levi takes off with Danny, it’s inexplicable how Christensen’s Will goes stock brocker to Outdoors Man of Action. I mean, I know this is an heist-gone-wrong-action-flick, but even an attempt and believable characterization would’ve helped.

 

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Instead, an ATV-and-SUV chase kicks off a descent into tedious action sequences  – it just so happens that two ATVs are parked on a gravel road in the forest, so Will and Richie can hop on them and pursue Levi. Please. Eventually, Willis’ tired Sheriff Howell gets involved, hinting at how he “just knew he’d run into” Will again and from here on out becomes even more implausible and bogged down with eye-rolling exposition.

Since “First Kill” starts off with a father training his son on the masculinity, it would’ve been interesting to see that topic tested on a more mental or psychological level here. What if Danny isn’t into killing another being? Then how does Will approach bonding and training his son. Where does masculinity come to play in all of the male characters in the film? But Gordon’s screenplay isn’t having any of that kind of development or introspection.

Christensen is just fine, despite the tired trope of “a father trying to get his son back”, but it’s surprisingly the scenes between Anthony’s Levi and Shelton’s Danny that provide something that rises above the typical B-movie conventions we’re used to. Anthony, who successfully discards his own British accent for the role of the blue collar misanthrope, actually has a bit more to work with here. There’s a good reason Levi’s gotten involved in this heist and it has very little to do criminal intent. He knows he’s against insurmountable odds and that he’s put a father-and-son in jeopardy unintentionally, so in the scenes between Levi and Danny, we see Levi try to connect with him and it works, thanks to both actors playing their roles with unexpected dimensions and intuitiveness. Again, it’s rare to see such performances pop up in what we expect is going to be buy-the-numbers action.

As for Willis, if you’ve been paying attention to his career path lately, it’s no surprise to see him show up in such B-movie schlock, but it’s still sad since we know what he’s capable of. The twist involving his sheriff character may be predictable, yet it’s also unearned, not offering Willis much. I wonder how many of those thirteen days Willis was in Ohio for?

I’m not sure what audience “First Kill” is for. If you’re an absolutely devout fan of either of the two leads, I guess this is for you. If you’re at all curious, wait for this to show up on basic cable. There was potential and some interesting concepts that could’ve been explored, but not with this screenwriter and director. My bet is neither of them thought that the stand out would be the kidnapper and the kid.

 

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RATING: **

 

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