'24 Hours to Live': Film Review

A dubious premise isn't sold by a screenplay more interested in generic manhunt action.

Longtime stunt pro Brian Smrz directs Ethan Hawke in a hitman action pic.

With hard-working hometown boy Ethan Hawke in the lead, it's easy to see why the Austin Film Festival would add Brian Smrz's 24 Hours to Live to its lineup. But the long-running event's focus on the art of screenwriting makes AFF an uneasy fit for this action pic, whose underdeveloped script is not among its modest virtues. Focusing on a hitman who is brought back from the dead and has 24 hours to save his former target's life, the picture sports the kind of commercial appeal that plays best in non-English-speaking territories. On these shores, it will quickly shuttle from theaters to streaming outlets.

Hawke plays Travis Conrad, a soldier who left Uncle Sam for a much higher-paying military contractor called Red Mountain. For the money, Conrad was expected to leave his morals at the door, becoming a hit man on jobs that served corporate interests more than any military objective.

Conrad has been "on hiatus" for a while, mourning the loss of his wife and son, when old buddy/colleague Jim Morrow (Paul Anderson) comes to recruit him for another assignment. "They want the best," Morrow explains, a line found in probably 90% of all hitman flicks. He is offered a million dollars a day to end his hiatus. Conrad talks Morrow up to two.

Conrad is sent to South Africa to kill a man planning to testify about Red Mountain's slaughter of civilians. The witness has been hidden away by Interpol's Hong Kong-based agent Lin Bisset (Xu Qin), so Conrad seduces her — in a sequence that aims for chilly Michael Mann-ish sex appeal, but never finds any chemistry between the two actors to sell it.

Things go south the next day, and Conrad winds up dead before he can use his ill-gotten information to kill the witness. But then he wakes up — having been revived by Red Mountain scientists, whose newly invented "procedure" is not a rebirth but "a patch job" to get him conscious long enough to tell the boss where the witness is. After-effects of The Procedure will start to degrade his faculties, he's told, and, if his body doesn't fall apart, a built-in failsafe will kill him in exactly 24 hours. Why scientists feel the need to implant an LED clock in Conrad's wrist to tick-tock-taunt him is something only a genre screenwriter could explain.

Starting to have hallucinations of his dead son and feel guilt over his misspent life, Conrad decides to team up with Bisset and get that witness to his deposition, destroying Red Mountain. The company's hardass owner (Game of Thrones' Liam Cunningham) can't have that, so he sics the rest of his killers on his former prized employee.

It's straight-up cat-and-mouse from here, and if Smrz's ample experience in stunt choreography generally keeps the action satisfying, it also makes him vulnerable to lapses of taste: By the time of the pic's climactic battle, Smrz is putting Hawke in the kind of guns-pointed-both-ways standoffs that only really said "badass" the first dozen or so times we saw them at the movies. Hawke delivers a workmanlike performance, but can't redeem the third act's macho baloney; sadly, Rutger Hauer (introduced in the opening and then wasted) doesn't come save him.

Production companies: Fundamental Films, Thunder Road Pictures
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Xu Qin, Lian Cunningham, Rutger Hauer, Paul Anderson, Nathalie Boltt
Director: Brian Smrz
Screenwriters: Zach Dean, Jim McClain, Ron Mita
Producers: Mark Gao, Basil Iwanyk, Gregory Ouanhon
Executive producers: Jonathan Fuhrman, Gary Glushon, Kent Kubena, Jon Kuyper
Director of photography: Ben Nott
Production designer: Colin Gibson
Costume designer: Kate Carin
Editor: Elliot Greenberg
Composer: Tyler Bates
Casting directors: Antonia Murphy, Christa Schamberger
Venue: Austin Film Festival

Rated R, 93 minutes