LOS ANGELES | The idea of the high-tech, emotionless super-soldier is so popular in movies, it’s practically a convention. The “Terminator” and “Bourne” franchises, and even last year’s animated “Big Hero 6,” imagine characters programmed to kill and the would-be world destroyers who want to control them.
The same formula is at work in “Hitman: Agent 47,” a stylized shoot-em-up based on a video game, of which no previous knowledge is required. Rupert Friend plays the titular character: an elite assassin genetically engineered to be smarter, faster, more fearless and less remorseful than ordinary human sociopaths. Named for the bar code branded on the back of his head, Agent 47 is stoic, expressionless and amazingly efficient at wielding multiple firearms and using everyday objects as murder weapons.
Unfortunately, “Hitman: Agent 47” leans on another familiar Hollywood convention, this one painfully outdated: the damsel in distress. It’s always disheartening to see this tired trope employed, but especially here, where the female protagonist is clearly as capable as any of her male counterparts. Why must she appear constantly on the verge of tears? Why does a brilliant woman like this need saving?
Some moviegoers may not mind the use of this lazy device — which serves as a catalyst for the action and ostensibly why we should care — but for those who do, it’s as frustrating as having a piece of popcorn stuck between your teeth.
Dogged by fractured memories from her childhood, Katia (Hannah Ware) is searching for answers. She’s turned the biggest wall in her one-room apartment into “A Beautiful Mind”-style mess of maps and photos and newspaper clippings dotted with push-pins and pieces of string. So singularly focused is she on her search that she sleeps on a mattress without sheets.
Two men are after her: Agent 47 and the mysterious John Smith (Zachary Quinto). Because Katia can sense danger before it happens, she escapes through her apartment window and heads straight to a shady, underground guy to secure a fake passport.
“Be careful, little girl,” he tells her. “The world is a dangerous place.”
Never mind that she is a full-grown adult woman who already knows where to buy a fake passport.
The story, explained in voiceover during the film’s opening moments and later by Quinto’s character, is that Katia’s geneticist father created — and later abandoned — a top-secret government program to engineer human killing machines. After his 47th attempt at perfecting the design, her dad disappeared, taking his secrets with him. The evil Le Clerq (Thomas Kretschmann) wants to resurrect the killer-making program, and he sees Katia as the key to finding the elusive scientist who can make it happen.
But all you really need to know is that two killers are after Katia, and she doesn’t know who to trust. This sets the stage for a series of heart-pounding chase scenes (brought to you by Audi) and thrilling fight sequences for the unflappable Agent 47. Like a GQ model with a heart of steel, Friend’s Agent 47 is elegant and merciless. He moves like liquid mercury through fist-fights and gun battles, beautifully choreographed by industry leaders 87Eleven Action Design.
Aleksander Bach, a commercial director making his feature film debut, deftly commands these shots. The car-versus-motorcycle chase through a parking garage is especially thrilling, as is a spectacular gunfight on a spiral staircase illuminated by strobe lights. The incredible international settings add to the eye candy.
But the damsel-in-distress trope dampens the action. Katia is always afraid, even as she says lines like, “We determine who we are by what we do.” The soundtrack is so cloying at times, it highlights the cheesiest dialogue. Though Katia eventually learns to fend for herself, she’s forever at the mercy of the men around her. And shame on the filmmakers for including a scene of Katia going for a swim that exists for no other reason than to show Ware’s backside in a bikini.
Her helplessness and emotional sensitivity don’t even make sense according to the script, but to say more about that would venture into spoiler territory.
“Hitman” is more fun to watch if you don’t think about that. Friend’s graceful execution of Agent 47’s killer moves is what the movie is really about, and he effortlessly smokes scores of attackers here, just like in a video game.
“Hitman: Agent 47,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for sequences of strong violence, and some language.” Running time: 96 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .