In the wrong hands, a gun-for-hire movie can be a compendium of cliches that incites yawns instead of revelatory tremors. But "The Killer," now streaming on Netflix, falls gloriously into the right hands with director David Fincher calling the shots like the true cinema virtuoso he is.
Are we lucky? We are, indeed. It's a pleasure to behold Fincher doing his meticulous thing, putting his laser-focus on an unnamed assassin, played by Michael Fassbender, a mesmerizing actor unequaled at showing an angry flame flickering just under an uber-cool surface.
As written by Fincher's "Seven" collaborator Andrew Kevin Walker, based on French comic books by Luc Jacamon and Alexis "Matz" Nolent, "The Killer" is essential Fincher, not quite up there with "Fight Club" and "Zodiac" but raising hell in ways too satisfying to spoil in a review.
Holed up in an abandoned WeWork building in Paris, the killer trains his sniper rifle on a posh hotel suite just across the street. But he's playing a waiting game, marking time until his target shows up by scarfing McDonald's, practicing yoga and listening to the Smiths (his fave band).
He's also barking orders at himself in voiceover, reminding himself to keep his blood rate as chilled as a vampire's, ignore empathy at all costs ("It's a weakness") and telling us that if you don't like waiting around, maybe a job as a professional killer (or a film director) is not for you.
It's Fincher's deliciously depraved conceit that his process is not that different from the killer's. You can't watch this movie provocation without thinking of Fincher, the perfectionist behind the camera, the man who put Jesse Eisenberg through nearly a 100 takes to get the first scene of "The Social Network" absolutely right. Mistakes not allowed.
Yet it's a mistake, a lethal and telling one, that kicks off this movie with the killer actually missing his target. Hodges (Charles Parness), his lawyer handler, offers to have the killer eliminated to placate the client. Hodges even sends two assailants to our boy's hideout in the Dominican Republic, where they beat his lover, Magdala (Sophie Charlotte) nearly to death.
Getting personal is crossing a line. And the killer forgets all his rules to exact revenge. Suddenly, the film has a pulse and the audience catches the heat. So does Fincher, taking the killer on a revenge odyssey, starting with Hodges in New Orleans (watch that nail gun) and moving on to Florida where he takes on the "Brute" (Sala Baker), who bashed Magdala's face into pulp.
It's in New York, where the killer finds the Brute's partner, a woman said to resemble a Q-tip. She's played by the terrific Tilda Swinton and she's a thrilling antagonist. Cornering her at a chic restaurant where she orders a flight of whiskey to steel herself for what's ahead, the killer comes close to meeting his match.
Swinton is electrifying in the role, fiercely funny as she distracts the killer with a fable about a hunter pursuing a grizzly bear that ends with a sexual punchline you won't see coming. The laughs extend to the fake names the killer puts on his credit cards, usually vintage sitcom characters like Sam Malone and Felix Unger, names that Gen Zers never recognize.
Swinton and Fassbender spar like the legends they are. You'll want more of them, but the killer needs to make a stop in Chicago to confront the client (Arliss Howard) who started it all. Fireworks follow, but not the kind you're thinking.
"The Killer" is a first for Fincher -- it's the one where he refuses to stick to a plan, letting shards of humanity throw him off his raw and riveting game. Don't expect a sunny redemption. Fincher and his killer share an affinity for loose ends hauntingly left untied. "The Killer" is too machine-tooled to warm your heart, but you can count on its chill to linger and haunt your dreams.