I never expected I’d watch a movie and think to myself after, “You know, Hayden Christensen outperformed Bruce Willis.” Yet, earlier this week that is exactly what happened after I watched First Kill, the newest film from direct-to-video action director extraordinaire Steven C. Miller.
Christensen stars as Will, a Wall Street broker that decides to take his family on a trip to the small country town he grew up in after his 11-year-old son Danny (Ty Shelton) is beat up by a bully at school. Will plans to take Danny out hunting for the first time in an effort to spend a little time with him and teach him out to stand up for himself. While I’m not sure how hunting exactly would help with this situation, I do think Will has his heart in the right place. He’s so busy at work that he hardly gets to spend any quality time with Danny. For Danny’s part he’s pretty indifferent to the whole thing until they arrive in the countryside and he gets to shoot the gun for the first time. Then he perks up. This may not help with Danny’s bully problems, but it should help with the father-son relationship.
Will’s return to his hometown gets off to a rough start off the bat. While pulling out of a parking spot he nearly backs into a car, but not just any car, this is a cop car. And it’s not even a regular cop car. This cop car belongs to the police chief Howell (Bruce Willis). Fortunately Howell remembers Will from when he was a little boy and just tells him to keep his eyes on the road, but that’s not to say the encounter isn’t strange. In addition to keeping his eyes on the road, Howell tells Will to be alert because something has recently happened in the town. Howell is very vague about it all and you can’t help but feel uneasy about the situation.
The next day Will finally gets to take Danny out for some hunting. They spend hours in the rain looking for a deer and come across nothing. Danny is ready to go home but Will is determined to stay out until they find something and that’s when they see it — a deer off in the distance. Will readies the gun and gives it to Danny for the shot. As Danny takes aim something scares the deer off before he can fire. Disappointed, Will goes to see what scared the deer and stumbles across one man holding another at gun point.
The men are arguing over money. From what we can gather they worked some type of heist together and one of the men didn’t exactly follow through. Eventually shots are fired and Danny panics and runs off. As Danny is running off the shooter spots him and takes aim. This results in Will killing the shooter and from there all hell breaks loose.
Turns out the man Will killed was a cop and the other man who was shot is still alive. Will ends up caught up in a heist gone wrong and Danny is taken hostage. Will must now try and work to get Danny back while evading Howell who is hot on his trail. Complicating matters is that Howell may not be exactly as he seems.
I’m a fan of director Steven C. Miller. He’s capable of scratching that direct-to-video itch that so many of us have. Not everything he does works, but he mostly makes entertaining movies. First Kill falls somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes to his work. It gets the job done, but it’s not something I’m likely to re-visit often like I do with Marauders.
Like many other DTV entries, especially those of the action variety, First Kill has a pretty solid premise. Man goes back to his hometown with his family, gets caught up in some trouble that turns out to go deeper than he ever imagined. That’s cool and that works. The problem comes in the details when we try and connect the dots of the story and piece the whole plot together. There are decisions in the grand scheme of things that don’t make a lot of sense and convolute things a bit.
For example, the scene where Danny is ultimately kidnapped is sort of stranger. The kidnapper grabs hold of Danny but he looks to be holding him hostage with pliers. Meanwhile Will has a rifle and has already proven to be a great shot. Yet somehow this scene ends with the kidnapper having the rifle? I understand the risk and Will wanting to look out for his son, but the dude had pliers. I feel like you could overtake the dude with pliers pretty easily. Maybe they weren’t pliers and just looked like it? I don’t know, but it was confusing.
I’m also not sure why Will doesn’t go to the cops from the start. Yes, he did ultimately shoot a cop but with good reason. And he knows the police chief so he has an in. As it turns out he was right not to go to the police, but he didn’t know that at the time. He just didn’t. And I understand decisions like these happen in movies sometimes just to create a conflict but as we soon find out going to the police actually would have created a pretty huge conflict that our story could have used. Why not just go with that?
Then there is Willis and his character of Howell. There are things he does that do not make a lot of sense. Just little things like the way he carries himself. In his first scene with Will he is so confrontational. If he were playing this as a grumpy, small town police chief I would get that, but given where his character ends up he should be a lot more charming during that first scene. Classic Bruce Willis would have killed that scene, but here he doesn’t. Unlike guys like Nicolas Cage, Willis doesn’t seem to be going all out and having a good time with his DTV roles. In fact, Willis was far and away the worst part of Miller’s Marauders. His performance here is a step up from that, but it still lacks what made Willis a star. And that kills me because I know he still has a great performance in him, he just has to want it.
And to be clear, I’m not saying Willis phoned his role in here. He has in the past for sure, but this is different. I just think he’s making decisions that I don’t personally like.
On the other end of the spectrum Christensen is actually pretty good. I liked his performance and was on board with him. He seemed like a genuinely caring family man that was happy to get this time alone with his wife and son. And once Danny gets kidnapped he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get him back. He makes some dumb choices along the way, but his heart is in the right place. Christensen was fully committed to this role and gave it his all. It was nice to see.
Gethin Anthony as the performance of the film as Levi, the man that ends up kidnapping Danny. We get to understand Levi and know where here’s coming from. He’s relatable and you want to root for him. He doesn’t want to do bad things, but he has to has a means of survival. And he has some really sweet moments with Danny as the two form a strange bond over Killer Instinct.
First Kill is out on Blu-ray and comes with a few special features. There’s an audio commentary with Miller along with some deleted and behind-the-scenes footage. There’s also some interviews with a number of the cast and crew including Miller, Anthony and director of photography Brandon Cox. An interview with Willis would have been nice. Perhaps he could’ve given some insight as to why he made the choices he did and maybe I’d view his performance differently.
At the end of the day First Kill is a pretty standard direct-to-video thriller. It has its moments, including the use of some nice squibs and some good photography courtesy of Cox, but it doesn’t go to that special place. It serves a purpose but won’t be something you often return to.
First Kill is now out on Blu-ray from Lionsgate Films.
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