Movies are made and then released. It’s film making, not rocket science, and most producers and studios have mastered the process by this point. Once in a rare while though a finished film will fall through the cracks between step one and step two and disappear from release schedules for a year or two or more. It’s called being “weinsteined” as in “Hey Fanboys, you’ve been weinsteined!” The origin of the term is unknown.
Shelved! will be a very infrequent feature here at FSR where we take a look at these movies from finished product to the silver screen (or TV screen). We’ll briefly examine possible reasons as to why the film was buried then review the movie to see if it was shelved with good cause or if it deserves a space on your shelf.
What was Shelved?
Killshot, directed by John Madden, starring Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Thomas Jane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Johnny Knoxville
Who Shelved it?
The Weinstein Company
When was it first Shelved?
Why was it Shelved?
The easy answer is that while the Weinstein’s are part marketing geniuses, they’re also part retarded. The more complex, legitimate, and politically correct answer is a combination of poor test screenings, too many chefs in the kitchen, a deadly curse, and a marketing plan based around Rourke’s inevitable Oscar win for The Wrestler. (Yes, the one he didn’t win.) Killshot, based on a 1989 novel by Elmore Leonard, was completed in 2006 under the reins of director John Madden and executive producer Quentin Tarantino. The film was the first (and only) foray into action film making for the director best known for the Academy Award-winning Shakespeare In Love. Test screenings in 2006 for a two-hour cut of Killshot resulted in unimpressed audience members and an unhappy Weinstein Company. There were reports of a convoluted and confusing plot and an annoyingly bad performance by Johnny Knoxville. Take a look at this early trailer for Killshot, circa 2006.
Note the presence of Knoxville, Tarantino’s name onscreen, a shotgun attack on the house, Lane fighting back with a pistol, Jane fighting back with shampoo in his hair, and the happy couple hugging, smiling, and canoodling? Yeah… all gone now. Re-shoots were planned with some big guns including Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella coming in to punch up Hossein Amini’s script. The process was apparently so difficult and cursed that it actually killed Pollack and Minghella (yet somehow Tarantino escaped with his life only to remove himself from all involvement with the film). Scenes and characters were excised and possibly up to a third of the film was re-shot in early 2007. Knoxville’s character was entirely removed from the movie, the relationship between Lane and Jane was revamped from couple in love to the more dramatic couple on the brink of divorce, and at least a few of the action scenes were replaced with completely different scenarios.
New cut in hand, The Weinstein Company began listing it on release schedules again… only to see it bumped again. By 2008 Killshot was scheduled for a fall release, but as Rourke’s The Wrestler buzz began to build and his Oscar win became a lock the wily Weinsteins apparently decided to move the film to an early 2009 release possibly to capitalize on Rourke’s award. As everyone knows by now, the Best Actor Oscar went to Sean Penn for Milk instead, leaving Rourke’s post-Oscar press to consist solely of Iron Man 2 pay squabbles and the musical chair casting for Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables.
Killshot was eventually released in five theaters under the Weinstein’s Third Rail Releasing. It opened on January 23rd, 2009, grossed $19k, and closed less than two weeks later. The DVD hits shelves on May 26th.
Review – Elmore Leonard’s writing has been the basis for over thirty films since 1957 with classics like Get Shorty, Mr. Majestyk, and Out of Sight alongside suck-fests like The Big Bounce, Touch, and Be Cool. The common thread found throughout the good films is the retention of Leonard’s carefully crafted characters and incredibly sharp dialogue. Killshot falls somewhere in between those two extremes with characters and dialogue that occasionally shine brighter than the film itself. Having not read the book, I’m not sure how much of this film comes straight from the source and how much is Amini’s doing, but the final product makes for a pretty good movie.
Killshot opens with hitman Armand “Blackbird” Degas (Mickey Rourke) and his two brothers doing a job in a hospital. “You gotta know what you’re doing when you go in,” Rourke intones over scenes of the three Native Americans walking the halls and killing a man. “You gotta have it figured out. Those are the rules.” It’s clear Degas lives and works by his rules, but when his younger brother forgets rule number one (make sure nobody sees you) the job goes bad real fast leaving one brother dead, another in jail for life, and Blackbird thinking about an early retirement. He takes a hit meant to be his last but upsets the mobster who hired him by killing a witness who just happens to be the mobster’s girlfriend. Now without a final paycheck, Blackbird takes a young punk named Rickie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) under his wing hoping to make a quick score extorting a real estate agent… which is where they cross paths with Wayne and Carmen Colson (Thomas Jane and Diane Lane). The couple are enduring a trial separation and enduring it poorly… she thinks they need it, he doesn’t understand it, and the two of them struggle to maintain even an awkward relationship. Blackbird and Nix mistake Wayne for their extortion target, they scuffle, and soon the couple find themselves under witness protection from the Indian’s deadly rules and the punk’s itchy trigger finger.
There’s a lot to like in Killshot starting with a too-brief cameo from a topless Hal Holbrook (and his equally topless mistress). As he shows in That Evening Sun, which premiered at this year’s SXSW film festival (review here), Holbrook is still a presence capable of imbuing even the slightest scene with weight. A nicely edited opening credit montage follows and introduces all of the major players to the awesome and rhythmic audio accompaniment of “Monkey” by the band Low. The score by Klaud Badelt is fine throughout the film but only truly shines during the more action or suspense oriented scenes. Speaking of which, director John Madden handles his action debut fairly well here. The scenes are brief but the kinetic editing combined with a sharp and effective score and sound effects make the action pulse pounding and exciting. Killshot plays out like a fairly straight-forward but entertaining thriller with at least one surprise development late in the game… an expected death in an unexpected manner.
The cast and the acting may make or break the film for some viewers, and it doesn’t help things that while the cast is stellar the acting is a mixed bag. Lane and Jane both give solid, if unspectacular, performances as a couple who’ve been together a while but have drifted apart. Jane’s casual style works well for the character and he takes to the action scenes naturally, while Lane has the role of disappointed wife pretty much nailed at this point. Rourke is hit and miss though. He displays his character’s emotions well, from the determination to get a job done to the disappointment when expectations and hopes aren’t met. An example… a fellow Indian makes it clear to Blackbird that he’s really not welcome on the reservation, and Rourke’s hopeful face melts to one of expected sadness. It’s a brief scene, but he conveys the disappointment perfectly. The aspect of Rourke’s performance that doesn’t quite work is his clipped English used to convince the audience he’s a Native American. His speech patterns, along with the “redskin” makeup, is highly inconsistent throughout… sometimes unnoticeable, sometimes unavoidable. Imagine the love child of Firestarter‘s John Rainbird (George C. Scott) and the killer faux-Indian from Brian DePalma’s Body Double and you’ll have a good idea what to expect from Rourke’s appearance.
The truly bad performances come from two very unlikely sources… Gordon-Levitt and Rosario Dawson. Both of them have rarely been anything less than excellent in past roles (future ones too, this was 2006 after all), but here they both stand out as absolutely fucking terrible. He overacts almost every scene with maniacal glee. His energy is off-the-wall (literally in one scene) and in stark contrast to every other aspect of the film. Nix is meant to be a loose cannon, a punk who acts before he thinks, but Gordon-Levitt plays him as a scrawny and unbelievably over the top caricature. A furrowed brow, an exaggerated swagger, and enthusiasm aren’t enough to create a convincing character. He was more believable as an alien on “Third Rock From The Sun” then he is here even if he does provide a few unintentional laughs. Dawson is fortunately in far less of the film than Gordon-Levitt is but she sucks just as hard. She plays Donna, an insecure catering-service employee who met Nix while slinging hash in prison. It’s never stated that she’s an imbecile but Dawson’s performance comes across like either a stupid thirteen year-old girl or a mentally challenged fourteen year-old.
The only other real issue with Killshot are the gaps resulting from the infamous edits and re-shoots. Certain scenes and sections of the film feel like they should be bigger or longer. The FBI visits the Colsons to inform them about Blackbird’s ties to the Toronto mafia (yes, Toronto mafia) and the need to place the couple in witness protection, and the scene just seems too tight and abrupt. The feds return later to tell the couple it’s now safe to go back home and the information is presented with a voice-over montage of scenes that appear cobbled together from multiple sources. In between those two points the Colsons predictably begin to rekindle their relationship while in hiding, but it feels slight and more about telling than showing. Having not seen the longer cut of the film it’s unclear if these gaps were previously filled or if the problem is simply sloppy film making.
Bad acting, curious narrative gaps, and unconvincing Native American aside, Killshot is still an entertaining ninety minutes. Even in this state it’s easily better than half the films that reach a more traditional number of theaters. (Traditional meaning more than five.) Should it have been shelved? It’s hard to say regarding the original cut, at least until the Weinsteins release it on DVD (will never happen), but in its current state Killshot is a competent and fast-moving thriller with a little heart, a few laughs, some exciting action scenes, and two and a half surprisingly bad performances. You could do worse, you could do better, but Killshot did not deserve to be Shelved!