"Wild Target" stars a Mini Cooper, and a hitman.
Maybe I was a little bummed out after reviewing so many downer movies this awards season, including “Biutiful,” “The Company Men,” “Blue Valentine” and “Another Year". Or maybe I have a soft spot in my moviegoing heart for Bill Nighy, the dry British character actor from “Love, Actually” and “Pirate Radio,” and Emily Blunt, the British actress best known for playing the acerbic assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada.”
But I’ll be darned if I wasn’t grinning from ear to ear through most of “Wild Target,” a daffy British crime farce that didn’t play Madison theaters, but was released on DVD a couple of weeks back and will hit Netflix on March 8. It looks like a million other direct-to-DVD films out there, and got thrashed by most critics. But there’s a goofy elegance to its laughs that I took to after enduring so much quality gloom in theaters.
Nighy gets a rare and welcome lead role in “Wild Target” as Victor Maynard, a polite middle-aged man who dotes on his elderly mother. He looks like every other nice, colorless man in a suit who stares off into space on the Tube on the way into work. Until he pulls out a gun and blows someone away.
Victor is a professional hitman, one who was raised to kill by his parents (in one funny detail, we see the mobile hanging over his old crib featured pistols and targets). He doesn’t particularly love his job or get any perverse satisfaction at it. He’s just good at it.
Victor is hired to rub out Rose (Emily Blunt) a free-spirited thief who attempts to sell a fake Rembrandt to a collector (Rupert Everett, who needs to be in more movies). The collector hires Victor for the job, but the assassin is unaccountably drawn to the target, and ends up becoming her protector instead.
It’s not a terribly original premise, and director Jonathan Lynn has had a long and uneven line of comedies to his credit, including “My Cousin Vinny,” “Nuns on the Run” and that really bad Steve Martin “Sgt. Bilko” movie.
“Wild Target” is easily one of his better efforts, a screwball film that reaches and sustains a certain level of manic invention for most of its running time, with physical gags and zingy dialogue bouncing back and forth across the screen. This kind of precision-timed comedy is hard to do well, so kudos to Lynn for pulling it off.
Lynn (and the screenplay by Lucinda Coxon) gives every character the chance to be funny, even if they don’t realize it. Nighy, for example, is drop-dead funny as the buttoned-down Victor because he’s so calm and reasonable in the most unreasonable of situations. Rupert “Ron Weasley” Grint has a nice turn as Victor’s unlikely apprentice, and I was shocked to see Martin Freeman, the likeable “Tim” of the original British “The Office,” effective in a menacing role as a rival hitman.
The humor reminded me of British farces of years ago, like “Pink Panther” movies, and when Nighy and Blunt race around London in a red Mini Cooper, you’re meant to think of Michael Caine in the original “The Italian Job.”
The only disappointment in “Wild Target” is the DVD extras. There’s one two-minute promo interview with Blunt, who mostly recounts the plot of the film. That’s it. It’s almost criminal, really.
“Wild Target” joins a long and storied line of hitman comedies, including one of Lynn’s own movies, the similarly-themed “The Whole Nine Yards,” in which Bruce Willis played a mob guy named Jimmy the Tulip trying to go straight. The film is notable for both inspiring a really bad sequel, “The Whole Ten Yards,” and giving Amanda Peet her first breakout role.
Another clever one is “The Matador,” in which Pierce Brosnan kicked off his intriguing post-Bond career by playing a macho hitman with a midlife crisis, and befriending an ordinary schmo (Greg Kinnear) while on assignment in Mexico. The scene where Brosnan strides through a hotel lobby in just a Speedo and cowboy boots is certainly memorable.
Ben Kingsley was unexpectedly funny in “You Kill Me,” playing a gruff Buffalo hitman who starts attending AA meetings to deal with his alcoholism, and finds that being clean and sober not only makes him a better man, it makes him a better killer.
For many, though, the ultimate hitman comedy will remain “Grosse Point Blank,” the 1997 black comedy in which John Cusack plays an assassin attending his high school reunion. A sort of sequel, the politically-charged “War Inc.,” didn’t jell as well.
I like “Blank” a lot, but my favorite hitman comedy remains “In Bruges.” Irish playwright Martin McDonagh combines hilarious dialogue and shocking violence in his tale of two assassins (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) hiding out in a picture postcard town in Belgium.