John Travolta, speaking in a leaden Bosnian accent, hurtles arrows at Southern war vet Robert De Niro while chasing him through the Appalachian woods. That’s the entire premise for “Killing Season,” an absurdly silly one-note thriller that’s ironically pretty entertaining on its own terms. In the heat of summer, the lightweight “Killing Season” also provides an ideal contrast to the lumbering tentpoles that have thundered into multiplexes during this particularly weak season. With its reliance on a pair of iconic stars, an original if fairly traditional story and violent showdowns without an iota of fancy effects work, “Killing Season” could have been made 20 years ago and looked the same. It’s a time capsule to an era of humbler stupid movies.
There’s a history to its antiquated nature. Originally titled “Shrapnel,” set in the seventies and trading the backdrop of Bosnian war trauma for WWII, the movie was set to be directed by John McTiernan, the eighties action auteur best known for tightly directed survival tales “Die Hard” and “Predator.” Though not as refined, “Killing Season” hails from a similar tradition, its tension steeped in the dark backstories for both main characters as they continually attempt to outwit each other.
Eventual “Killing Season” director Mark Steven Johnson’s other films don’t indicate a capacity for this kind of restraint — his previous credits include consciously over-the-top comic book adaptations “Ghost Rider” and “Daredevil” — but “Killing Season” resembles those movies in its willingness to unapologetically hold tight to a ridiculous scenario all the way through.
The stakes are established even before the credits roll. After a frenzied prelude of shootouts between soldiers and Bosnians in a small village in the early nineties that ends with a mass execution, the story flashes forward 20 years to the present day, in which surviving Serb Emil Kovac (Travolta) receives a file revealing the location of Benjamin Ford, the retired U.S. soldier responsible for ruining Emil’s life on the battlefield. After a few cursory lines to show off Travolta’s ostensible command of the language (echoes of Sean Connery speaking Russian for a hot second at the start of “The Hunt For Red October”), the cheesy accent kicks in. “I’m going hunting,” he deadpans, and so it begins. But what’s particularly intriguing about this head-smackingly obvious concept is it takes time to reach our expectations. The first act of “Killing Season” involves pure character development, a strangely refreshing approach that imbues the rather uninspired one-on-one combat with purpose.
With the exception of a fleeting appearance by Milo Ventimiglia as Benjamin’s estranged son, “Killing Season” almost entirely takes place in the woods surrounding the isolated cabin where the former soldier hides from the world. His last name, Ford, suggests a sly nod to America’s great Western auteur, who would likely approve of the character: a sullen John Wayne-esque hardass haunted by his bleak past but smitten with the American frontier.
Seemingly listening to Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” on repeat (on LP, no less) when not roaming the countryside photographing its beauty, Benjamin inhabits a peaceful world nimbly established in a handful of scenes. Then Emil arrives in cognito to stake out his prey and the illusion of contentment slips away — but only after the duo have some drinks together.
Announcing himself as a drifter, Emil befriends Benjamin at his cabin and quickly gets him drunk; before long, they’re sprawled out in front of the fireplace boozily humming the words to the aforementioned Cash song, which addresses the movie’s anti-militant theme, in case you hadn’t already guessed. It’s hard not to giggle with guilty pleasure glee at the bizarre sight of De Niro and Travolta working with such blatantly uncomplicated material as if it were a profound acting feat. It’s equally difficult to discern if they find the material as transparently over-the-top as it plays out or if they’re kidding themselves. That ambiguous place somewhere between self-awareness and unearned gravitas gives “Killing Season” a weird kick.
But now that we’ve enjoyed these men as friends, the battle begins, with Emil trapping Benjamin in the woods during a hunting expedition the next day. Trading threats on walkie talkies while peering at each other through the trees and firing arrows across the barren land, the two men are almost too evenly matched. In the enusing fights, the power shifts from one side to the other with comical frequently: How many times can we watch Emil tie down Benjamin (or vica versa) before counting down the seconds until he finds a way to knock his captor down and turn the tables?
That continuing redundancy is matched by a bizarre fixation on grotesque developments; Johnson includes several close-ups of bloody wounds that exacerbate the movie’s insistence on turning up every quality to the max — its conceits are as obvious as its willingness to make you squirm. Yet that also contributes to a peculiar charm. “Killing Season” is like the Saturday morning cartoon version of a terrible movie: still bad, but at least colorful enough to go down easy.
Loaded with dimestore monologues about grief and revenge that each character indulges in whenever he has the other one in captivity, the script reaches for a takeaway that’s easily discernible from the outset. “We are the same, you and I,” grumbles Emil. But in spite of its predictability, that lesson gives the movie a unique twist by shifting its genre into the realm of a buddy movie. By that same token, it functions as a metaphor for both actors’ perseverance. In fact, “Killing Season” might be read as their manifesto — a coarse but undeniably amusing two-hander between two stars pushing retirement age but unwilling to give up.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Millennium Entertainment releases “Killing Season” in theaters nationwide as well as on Premium VOD today. Its genre hook and star power should help it perform strongly in ancillary markets, though its theatrical prospects are pretty dim during this busy season.