During the 1990s, there was a hot conceit for action films that I have a real soft spot for: Die Hard set in a [blank]. You would have Under Siege (“Die Hard set on a boat”) and it’s sequel (“Die Hard set on a train.”) You would have your Speeds, which could be loosely described as Die Hard on a bus or another boat. A personal favorite of mine is the Van Damme popcorn classic Sudden Death, aka Die Hard at a hockey game. The formula is sound: put people in a singular location they can’t escape, throw impossible odds at them and watch them overcome through bravery and ingenuity. It is very simple but satisfying crowd pleasers.
Jump a few decades later, and the genre has mostly been relegated to lower budget pastiches, where the budgetary constraints of having a singular location offer inspiration for setting. One such experiment is the new thriller from director Matt Eskandari, Hard Kill, which is such a riff on Die Hard that it even has Bruce Willis in a supporting role. The film is actually Willis’ third collaboration with Eskandari, and his second this year after Survive the Night. Unfortunately, despite having solid foundational pieces, Hard Kill doesn’t quite come together as a thrilling final product, but is impressive for a throwback action thriller that was shot in ten days.
The premise of Hard Kill is fairly simple, though the film goes to great lengths to lay it out: a mercenary group led by Derek Miller (played with steely distance by Jesse Metcalfe) is hired to nominally protect tech billionaire Donovan Chalmers (Willis) from a dangerous terrorist known as the Pardoner (Sergio Rizzuto). Despite something not quite smelling right, Miller’s crew accepts the job mostly because the paycheck sounds right. But of course they find out they’ve been intentionally led into an ambush when their rendezvous at an abandoned factory turns out to be a setup.
Chalmers is in fact trying to draw the Pardoner near because the terrorist has Chalmers’ daughter Eva (Lala Kent) held hostage. Chalmers wants Miller’s crew to rescue Emma while also protecting him. But the reason the Pardoner has Chalmer’s daughter in the first place is due to a shakily described “AI program” she created which could save or destroy modern civilization. Chalmers knows the security code that will unlock the AI, but refuses to give it to the Pardoner due to his nefarious schemes. The stakes are thus set: the mercenaries are trying to rescue Emma, protect Chalmers and ensure that the Pardoner doesn’t destroy modern civilization.
If that all sounds a bit complicated, it is mostly dealt with during the opening act of the movie; the real passion of the film is to stage shoot out sequences in the appropriately oppressive factory setting that the heroes find themselves trapped within. The McGuffin itself is hilariously described through techno babble (“You created a quantum AI? It’s like binary on steroids.”) but the overall structure is fairly simple once the pieces are in place. The mercenaries realize that the Pardoner has an army who will do whatever it takes to obtain Chalmers, and thus the cat-and-mouse basics of the familiar structure set in.
The problem with the film is that unlike the best examples of the genre above, Miller’s crew is never really tasked with doing anything especially creative to outwit the bad guys. The thing about Die Hard is that John McClane has to be one step ahead with limited resources, down to having no shoes; Miller’s crew appears to have an endless supply of weapons and ammo to pull from. Even when they are overwhelmed, they never feel especially powerless or on the verge. The action feels more akin to a tactical shooting video game. In fact the whole movie is somewhat structured like a video game: exposition of the stakes and motivations, extended shoot outs, repeat. The fact that almost all of the Pardoner’s personal army are faceless masked gunman doesn’t alleviate the feeling of them being fodder for bullets and delaying the final conflict.
Rizzuto as the Pardoner is probably the greatest strength of the movie. He is relishing the opportunity to be the big bad, and luxuriates in corny dialogue with precise delivery. (“Seven pounds. That’s all the pressure it takes to pull a trigger.”) The fact that his evil scheme barely makes sense is mostly beside the point because he is playing it to the rafters. Any scene he shows up in is instantly more in line with the legacy of action flicks it exists within.
On the other end of the spectrum is Bruce Willis, who is unfortunately more the Bruce Willis of modern day than the Bruce Willis of 1988. To some degree his performance works because Chalmers is meant to be an ex-military-turned-tech-guru who is haunted by his past. But he plays as less haunted and more disinterested, up to and including being witness to some truly traumatic imagery and having nearly no discernible reaction. But his read on every scene is fairly identical despite the circumstances.
The rest of the ensemble cast performs well enough, showing up for the task asked of them at any given situation. Another standout beside Rizzuto is Natalie Eva Marie, who plays the sole woman in the mercenary band, Sasha. As the situation goes more and more wildly out of control, her energy escalates as well, communicating the increasing stress of the situation. During the various “down” moments of the film, she is typically a stand-out amidst a flurry of exposition and character beats. She is shaken and unsettled, while her masculine compatriots around her maintain an unflappable mystique that does little to endear the audience.
Hard Kill ultimately isn’t a bad movie for its own merits. It is a film that is competently pieced together, with a clarity that really allows the constrained space to feel known and provides visual language that pulls you through. The action is also well choreographed, even if most of it breaks down to trading gunfire in contained spaces again and again. The acting, with the unfortunate exception of Willis, is up to the task and is definitely keyed into the tone that Eskandari is aiming for. It even has an intentionally retro synth soundtrack that recalls John Carpenter’s most stirring work.
But ultimately, there is something about the film that doesn’t quite grab the audience. Perhaps it is because it doesn’t have a truly magnetizing lead character, opting for quick sketches of characters rather than fully fleshed out protagonists. Because of that, we are mostly left with well planned but not especially creative gunfights and a plot that is somehow simultaneously fairly thin and needlessly knotted. The end result is competent, but ultimately ephemeral and forgettable. It enters into a long legacy of Die Hard-likes, but does little to truly stand out from the pack.
Hard Kill is available on Video-on-Demand services on August 25th.