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A decade after he tackled the Bard in Shakespeare in Love, director John Madden moves onto America's Bard-- Elmore Leonard, that is. Leonard is our generation's Raymond Chandler and an undeniable master of-- what author Carl Hiaasen once called (as quoted by Dave Barry)-- the "south Florida wacko genre" being that most of his works are set primarily in Miami. While to writers and paperback junkies he is revered, to some he is categorized like he's the literary equivalent of fast food as in the case of a certain high school creative writing teacher of mine who called Leonard the scribe of "good old boy" crime novels while expressing her fierce dismay that her formerly Jane Austen obsessed student habitually brought a different library paperback home every weekend to teach herself the real way to write dialogue.
And it's precisely the man's dialogue that has made Leonard an idol even to such contemporary master wordsmiths as Stephen King and Quentin Tarantino-- the latter of whom not only adapted Rum Punch into his underrated Jackie Brown but also helped bring Killshot to the screen. A solid addition to the Elmore Leonard filmography, Killshot is a vintage character-driven-- almost 1940's Humphrey Bogart gangster movie modeled-- crime film that works like a chamber piece.
In other words, it's in the same tonal realm as Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, Chris Eigeman's Turn the River, Courtney Hunt's Frozen River, and Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight or-- to use the most current example-- lead actor Mickey Rourke's most recent film, The Wrestler.
As he did in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler (although this was filmed a few years prior), it's ultimately Rouke who propels the film and sets everything in motion giving a multi-layered performance as the professional Toronto mafia hired killer who rarely speaks but packs a big wallop.
And fittingly, if there's one quiet character in a sparsely populated filmic version of the Elmore Leonard universe-- and doubling the pressure he's the lead-- devotees know damn well that we're going to need a quirky foul-mouthed chatterbox to pick up the slack, feed us the delicious conversational snippets we crave to balance it all out.
And filling this role exceedingly well in Killshot is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a small-time crook who makes up for his inexperience with ridiculous ambition and little success. The product of a bad foster care system who-- although he outwardly ridicules his live-in lover Donna's obsession with Elvis-- carries himself with a little bit of The King in manner and speech.
Following his overlooked lead performances in Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss, Greg Araki's Mysterious Skin (which on closer look seemed to influence his 10 Things I Hate About You costar Heath Ledger's Brokeback Mountain portrayal), Scott Frank's The Lookout (incidentally written by the man who penned numerous Leonard adaptations), and Riann Johnson's modern day noir Brick, Gordon-Levitt continues to impress.
Additionally, he's always a commanding force who stays with you even when he's only shown briefly as in his heartbreaking final scene in Stop-Loss. And in Killshot Gordon-Levitt channels stars from a decade past Rourke's '40s style, blending together Elvis, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Paul Newman as the quintessential swaggering, aggressively ignorant yet ridiculously arrogant, charismatic, but ultimately deadly Elmore Leonard villain that Don Cheadle nailed so well in Soderbergh's Out of Sight.
As Richie Nix-- who quickly explains his name is spelled differently than Stevie Nicks's (as if they'd get for mistaken for relatives)-- he gets a majority of the laughs and shockingly steals focus from Rourke who is still fresh from having made the comeback of all comebacks in his Oscar nominated work in The Wrestler.
Opening with a few blisteringly quiet yet violent scenes of Rourke's "Blackbird" at work in a duo of hits-- the first of which leaves one brother dead (from Rourke's gun) and one in jail for life-- he's reluctantly lured back to his day job for one major hit on a mob boss which, given his tendency to leave zero witnesses, makes the Blue Caddy he was provided with for the gig the only payment he receives.
Unwelcome both on the Michigan reservation where his Native American grandmother was a medicine woman and in his old Toronto stomping ground, soon the lone gunman acquires an apprentice, schooling Richie in after the naive crook attempts to hijack the veteran killer.
As they crash at Richie's pad he shares with Donna (Rosario Dawson), they team up for Richie's foolish idea for a big score to blackmail a real estate developer. But when the plan goes awry and the separated married couple Carmen (Diane Lane) and Wayne (Thomas Jane) become witnesses following a bad case of mistaken identity, the two unwittingly become targets of The Blackbird whose one consistent modus operandi is to never leave anyone alive who has seen his face.
Essentially a film that works on the primal goal of survival as its main through-line, it's a deceptively structurally simplistic thriller that uses the basic conflict of "bad men want to kill good people" and although it's aptly described as a thriller, it works on the same near horror like level of films like The Night of the Hunter, Panic Room, or Red Eye since any other plot is unimportant compared to the essential one to outwit the sociopaths and stay out of the morgue.
And Madden and scripter Hossein Amini know their plot well, whittling away any excess with a vicious hand like they were wood carvers, sharpening it up until it squeezes into a sparse eighty-four minute running time, wisely making the decision not to overflow Killshot with unimportant subplots or any over-the-top showdowns (as in Red Eye's finale) that would detract from the logic of the character driven drama.
Likewise it gives Lane a great chance to get out of chick flick territory which she does by ripping into this film with the anger and intelligence of perhaps realizing she had to alternate it with starring in the formulaic and manipulative Nights in Rodanthe. And while she is given considerably less to work with than the villains who always rule the land of Leonard, much like Rourke whose very presence makes him instantly compelling, instinctively we latch onto Lane from the first moment up until the ending when-- true to the title-- bullets will fly and one has to be quick to avoid getting dead.