A couple of years ago I wrote a review of the short film Assassins written and directed by the young and talented upcoming filmmaker Michael Bonomo and starring the hardest working character actor in independent cinema the extremely versatile Bill Oberst Jr.. Well now, they have teamed up again to collaborate on the full-length version that also marks Bonomo’s debut as a feature director which has just been completed and is about to hit the festival circuit. As well as the director’s chair, he also returns to writing duties but this time takes more of a secondary role in this department working with first-time produced screenwriter Dave Grant who also serves as an associate producer whose story has grown out from the original short basing the opening scene here on its entirety. Oberst Jr. reprises his role as hitman Nathan with this time the character credited as his surname Hargraves. He is a cold dead inside hardened veteran in his dangerous field of work; a dark world that is the only life he knows.
Do not let the generic action title fool you as the movie is far from being in the vein of say its 1995 big-budget Hollywood namesake directed by Richard Donner and starring Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas. The screenplay for this low-budget independent production completed in just nine days is written to accommodate the limitations of what can be achieved on screen; the story has been planned around the budget. Because of this, the director has used his modest resources to full effect striving for a deliberately paced stripped down minimalist approach shooting on a tight schedule of just two weeks with limited locations. He has created a talky, atmospheric, moody, tough neo-noir crime thriller that emphasises upon character, hardboiled dialogue, psychological aspects, building suspense and tension and twists and turns in its cat-and-mouse plot. It features a modicum of grounded action with two key set-pieces and two scenes of mean spirited violence that depicts the harsh realities of this ugly world.
David Pesta plays Chris Collins whose life is turned upside down by the horrific murder of his ex-girlfriend Erin. He is haunted in his nightmares by the face of a man a stranger (Bill Oberst Jr.) who he saw only moments before seeing the dead body of his former lover in her apartment with a bullet hole in her head along with the body of the man who shot her. A week after Erin’s death another stranger turns up claiming to know who orchestrated her murder. His name is Simon (Andre Tenerelli) an assassin who has been chasing his target the stranger who Chris saw - Hargraves - for several years. Chris is the only person to see this mysterious and very dangerous man alive so Simon uses him for bait as Hargraves will be desperate to tie up loose ends. Despite Simon’s promise of protection, Chris begins to question who threatens his life more.
While this synopsis promises a multitude of clichés and predictable outcomes, it does not deliver them and you will remain invested throughout. While concentrating on psychological aspects Grant tweaks the plot with twists and turns and is anything but predictable with a shocking resolve to the story you will not see coming, Bonomo builds suspense and tension thick and fat in a well-paced affair telling a compelling and gripping story and the performances of all three main players is strong. Oberst Jr. relishes his role with an appetite for destruction chewing up the scenery, spitting it out with venom as he hurtles through each of his scenes with convincing vigour as a powerhouse of malevolence, and delivering the bad attitude laden dialogue written for him with much glee making for a highly memorable frightening screen villain. Pesta does a successful job of drawing our sympathies as a man out of his depth unwillingly caught up in a vendetta between two determined hard men from a world he does not know and does not understand who are doing their damnedest to outwit each other. This is a normal average everyday person like us caught up in a terrifying situation that we would not want to find ourselves in - this is instantly relatable. Tenerelli also holds his own very well with a brooding presence as an embittered professional in his line of work frustrated at always getting so close to his target Hargraves but never making the hit who is not all he seems with a hidden agenda.
The film is darkly lit and slickly and stylishly shot by cinematographer Noel Maitland employing truly inspired extraordinary camera angles capturing perfectly the noirish mood enhanced by the gorgeously subtle score by Kristen Baum encapsulating the proceedings in an atmosphere that recalls Michael Mann’s greats of the genre - his 1981 debut ‘Thief’ and the more recent ‘Collateral’ (2004). Maitland and Baum are also returning crew members from the original short version. The two aforementioned action set-pieces are not over the top aiming for a gritty realism, are not tacked on in anyway serving the plot well as devices to move it forward with a natural progression, and are executed with pitch-perfect precision. These entail an intense alleyway shootout and a thrilling crucial showdown in the climax between the two assassins as the man caught in the middle of their war looks on to a tightly choreographed and well-edited (as is the whole movie by Heather Goodwin) street fighting sequence. The two scenes of brutality only phones home the extremity of the characters’ situation and again fit naturally into the story moving it forward.
‘Assassins’ breaks no new ground in its genre but what it does do it does efficiently well for a low-budget indie production in which its filmmakers knew its limitations and made those drawbacks work in their favour. It might not be perfect but it is an admirable effort overall and is testament to what can be achieved on meagre resources with the right talent behind and in front of the camera putting in a solid team effort. It is a confident debut from director Michael Bonomo and screenwriter Dave Grant and given a bigger budget this collaborative team have the potential to go on to greater things.
NOTE: You can also read a review of the original short film, which essentially serves as a description of the opening scene here as it follows the short version very closely. You can watch the original short below the article as well.
*** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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