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KARLOVY VARY — A former Serbian soldier and his one-time American opponent get a second — and third, and fourth… — chance to torture each other in Killing Season, from director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, Ghost Rider).
John Travolta plays a Serbian with a fat accent and a grudge the size of the Austro-Hungarian empire who travels to the U.S. to “accidentally” befriend Robert De Niro, a retired U.S. soldier who also fought in the 1990s Yugoslav wars. Their hunting trip in the Appalachians quickly turns into a long-winded chase as the true reason for the Serb’s visit emerges, though the film struggles to suggest the former fighters are true equals or even interested in actually killing each other.
Some choice (if brief) moments of gore as well as the first pairing of the two veteran stars might spark some initial audience interest, the performances themselves won’t aid word-of-mouth. Millennium Entertainment will release the film stateside July 12 after premieres at the Taormina and Karlovy Vary festivals, though this modestly scaled project should perform better as a small-screen item (it goes out day-and-date on VOD).
Emil Kovac (Travolta) was part of a gang of vicious Serbian soldiers during the Yugoslav conflict. Benjamin Ford (De Niro) fought there as part of the NATO force, though nowadays he’s retired to a hunting lodge in the Appalachians where he not only enjoys hunting but equally savors being far away from his ex-wife and her new husband. Perhaps with some regret, he also sees very little of his adult son (Milo Ventimiglia), who’s just had a child of his own.
When Ford’s car breaks down in the forest, a foreign man claiming to be Bosnian miraculously appears to help him out. When it starts pouring, he’s invited back to the cabin, where the men trade war stories. Since the film begins with a flashback to the war and a scene in present-day Belgrade, where Kovac lays his hand on a file with Ford’s information, it doesn’t come as a surprise in the rather slow first half-hour that the Serb suggests a hunting trip the next day and quickly turns into a very different type of hunt.
When the truth surfaces and the chase begins, there are initially a few clever details, such as the use of walkie-talkies so the two can communicate even when they’re running from each other. There’s also the fact both men hunt with a bow and arrow. Their archaic weapon of choice directly leads to the film’s first scene of gore, which sees one of the men hit in the calf by an arrow and subsequently hung from a string pulled through the resulting hole.
But the tension and element of surprise of this first bloody interlude are largely absent in what follows, as the subsequent cat-and-mouse game continually repeats a single setup: one of the two catches the other until the latter gets away and everything starts all over again.
Various backdrops and torture methods — including waterboarding with a laughable amount of salt and lemon juice — are used, but not once do De Niro, Travolta or Johnson manage to suggest the men are truly in mortal danger and coincidences must pile up so the chase can continue. The screenplay by Evan Daugherty (who had a story credit on Snow White and the Huntsman) also lacks humor and struggles to integrate the supposed confessions and conversations the two often bone-weary men have about the war and God. Things even unintentionally tip over into parody when Kovac and Ford face off in a church at the crack of dawn.
Cinematographer Peter Menzies (Die Hard: With a Vengeance, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) isn’t as nearly interested in the scenery (shot in Georgia and Bulgaria) as Travolta, who chews large quantities of it as Kovac. He not only looks disconcerting with his pitch black chinstrap beard but also sounds it, with his thick, occasionally unintelligible Slavic accent. De Niro is particularly subdued here, further reinforcing the impression that a true battle of the wills between the protagonists will never materialize. The obvious use of body doubles in several sequences is also distracting.
Christopher Young‘s busy score tries to add tension to scenes that clearly didn’t have a lot of it going in, and the pursuit also ends rather abruptly after just over 70 minutes, with the remaining time of the 90-minute duration split between the various codas and drawn-out end credits.
Originally called Shrapnel, the film was meant to team up Travolta with his Face/Off co-star Nicolas Cage under the direction of John McTiernan before finally being made in its current configuration.
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Special Events)
Opens: July 12 (Millennium Entertainment)
Production companies: Corsan, Millennium Films, Nu Image
Cast: John Travolta, Robert De Niro, Milo Ventimiglia, Elizabeth Olin
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Screenwriter: Evan Daugherty
Producers: Paul Breuls, Ed Cathel III
Director of photography: Peter Menzies
Production designer: Kirk M. Petruccelli
Music: Christopher Young
Costume designer: Denise Wingate
Editor: Sean Albertson
Sales: Media Pro Distribution
R rating, 90 minutes.
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