By Elias Savada.
Bruce Willis still tracks 243 on the IMDB.com STARmeter scale (I’m at 1,325,678). All kind of entertainment folk are part of the ratings, and Willis has been moving downward lately after decades in the top 100. His gradual tumble down the rankings rabbit hole began with the release of A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), a career and series low point. While he’s still remembered for some top notch popcorn-munching box office hits (The Sixth Sense, Die Hard and its first sequel), his name is fading quickly from the marquee – if you find any of his recent efforts actually in a theater. As for First Kill, a Lionsgate Premiere release that is appearing on exactly one screen on the lonely outskirts of 12 metropolitan U.S. locales (sorry, DC – actually congrats!), this R-rated thriller has Bruce second billed to Hayden Christensen, another yet-to-fully-rise star in Hollywood who can’t catch the right films after his overacting stint as Annakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episodes II and III. The last few years he’s been hanging with his older brother, Tove, a producer on several of Hayden’s films (Shattered Glass, American Heist), and both have served in producer capacities on other indie projects (Cooties, Standoff), seen by few.
As for director Steven C. Miller, he’s been following the Bruce Willis bandwagon for a few years. Picking up the pieces. They paired up for Extraction (2015) and Marauders, a year later. Both are small, straight-to-DVD thrillers that I doubt any of you (I didn’t) have seen them. Along with First Kill, these are being made by a slew of a low-budget production houses like Grindstone Entertainment, Emmett Furla Oasis Films, and others that pull in such actors as Robert De Niro, John Cusack, Nicolas Cage, and, especially dear old Bruce, often phoning in performances worthy of the stunt-casting that got them these gigs. Send in the firearms, too, as these movies gotta have some gunfights.
The Willis-Miller mash-up continues, with their current entry centering on harried Wall Street wheeler-dealer Will Beamon, who drops his positions when his 11-year-old son Danny (Ty Shelton) becomes a serial visitor to the principal’s office. Later, the script (by Nick Gordon, partly responsible for an ugly horror-porn effort called Girlhouse), fills in the fact it’s a bullying thing, with Danny Boy on the wrong end. Wife/mom/surgeon Laura (Megan Leonard) puts away her carving knife to provide a pretty assist to the man of the house as they take an instant trip back to Will’s home town in Ohio.
Rather than offering some video game time together, dad thinks it’s time for a real shoot-’em-up offing Bambi to help the family get through its issues. Unearth grand-pappy’s old hunting rifle, head out into the woods, and offer his son about ten seconds worth of safety tips, because that’s exactly the kind of help a depressed city kid needs. “Safety, safety, safety,” the father tells the son, without much emphasis on, well, safety. I’m just wondering the reason no one’s wearing blaze orange gear, so the crooks in the woods have an enhancing hunting experience.
As they head west, you’ll start to notice the first distraction – the inordinate number of drone shots that cinematographer Brandon Cox is shoving down the audience’s throat. While others use this aerial view for artistic merit, here it’s just an overused toy. Sure, this is (eventually, and only barely) an action flick, but some of these shots just make me want to barf.
When Willis’s character arrives, it’s in Will’s rear-view mirror. This time he’s the crusty, forever-and-a-day town police chief, Marvin Howell of Granville, Ohio. Where some of its less than 6,000 residents are not as nice as the rest. A few minutes in to this reclaim-your-roots story, we get to tag along with Sheriff Marv as he spouts few words sipping his coffee and seeming to make small, meaningful dialogue with one of his male deputies. I’m guessing the script is hiding some secrets, including how the bank robbery that opened the film will play into the family’s NRA-sponsored vacation.
There are but a few morsels of enjoyment in the thieves-dividing-the-spoils plot that envelopes the father and son, and soon enough, the rest of his family, as they stumble through this scavenger/treasure hunt with one bad decision after another. The only question left as the rudimentary climax arrives is how many crooked people there are in this little burg and how many innocent folk they want to bring into their cookie cutting B-movie story. In this readily disposable father-in-peril, boy-in-peril, crook-in-peril actioner, there is one bright light and his name is Gethin Anthony, who plays Levi Barrett, an American hillbilly flunky. Anthony, a Brit whose played one of society’s ultimate baddies (Charles Manson in the Aquarius series), also had a featured roll as Renly Baratheon during the first season of Game of Thrones. He takes on a large piece of the acting chops in the second half of the film. Sadly, for most of the cast, the script just throws them together willy-nilly and then has them take aim at one another. They should be killing the messenger.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).