Following his service in the Serbian War and a divorce from his wife, Ben Ford (Robert De Niro) has become a bit of a hermit, living in a cabin on a secluded mountaintop, where he can take photos of nature in peace. Unfortunately, he's about to be paid a visit by Emil Kovac (John Travolta), a Serbian who appears friendly at first, but eventually reveals the reason for his visit is to hunt Ben, who shot him and left him for dead years earlier. Although Emil has thought about little else but this confrontation since 1992, training and plotting his revenge, it isn't long before Ben's survival instincts kick in, and the two soldiers go head-to-head in the isolated wilderness.
10 years ago, Killing Season might've been an "event" action movie: De Niro and Travolta in a bloody battle, with the director of Daredevil at the helm. Today, it's a routine DTV feature, representing all three major players slumming it on a distinctly low-budget thriller. Unfortunately, the change in prestige also means a change in quality, as Mark Steven Johnson struggles to shoot an engaging action sequence, while screenwriter Evan Daugherty leaves some of the film's thematic threads are left flapping in the wind. Worst of all (unsurprising as it may be), neither star seems all that invested in the movie, it's a "pick-your-poison" of a sleepy De Niro who rarely comes to life or Travolta awkwardly hamming it up as a crazy foreigner.
Daugherty's screenplay is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's kind of admirable that the screenplay aims for more than just an action movie, allowing the viewer to settle in with Ben and Emil before Emil reveals his true intentions. On the other hand, considering most of this material is awkward at best, there's no reason to think a straight-up survival thriller wouldn't have been more fun, especially with Travolta going big and bold. There is a little about both men's faith -- the baptism of Ben's grandson is a plot point, and Emil talks at length about his belief in God -- but it doesn't really play into the story much, serving only as a backwards "reason" for Emil's insanity than the basis for an ideological debate (this is also not to say the movie is a diss on Christianity, it's just that Emil has interpreted his belief in God in a demented way). Daugherty gains more traction with "horrors of war" material that suggests conflict is eternal as long as someone's there to feed it. "Sometimes things just become a part of you, whether you like it or not," Emil says. The character of Ben is also interesting, admitting that his "outdoorsman" lifestyle is a fraud (the animals in his house weren't hunted, just "rustic interior design elements" from when he bought the house), but any legitimacy or fulfillment the character is meant to get out of the battle isn't conveyed by De Niro or the script.
When there are action sequences, Johnson is clearly stymied by the budget (and probably the limitations of his stars, who I would imagine had short wnidows to shoot a film like this, and may not have fully participated in some sequences, such as a scene where Ben is washed down a river). As a result, fistfights are generally of the modern "shaky-cam" variety, without clear shot geography. The bow-and-arrow fights are marginally better, but Johnson isn't particularly innovative, with some CG to help the shots. The two best sequences are an interrogation where Emil strings Ben up by his leg (there's more to it, but I won't spoil it), and a torture scene in which De Niro prepares some lemonade for Emil, then comes after him with an axe. The axe bits represent De Niro's acting zenith in the movie, and for a short while, it's actually kind of fun.
It's not obvious what a viewer would want out of a stand-off between these two actors, but Killing Season tries to have its cake and eat it too, being different than one take by stumbling through another. In doing so, it ends up being a movie that isn't all that great at anything; there are a few wisps of what could have been, but Killing Season is a bust.
The simplicity of Killing Season's two-man cover isn't that much different from "big heads" in some ways, but also pretty clearly covers all the bases -- Travolta, De Niro, armed and in a foggy forest, with a tagline to clarify that they're fighting each other and not some wild animal. When so many pieces of Blu-Ray art these days are ugly PhotoShop messes, I'd rather key art stick to the basics than overdo it. The back cover is a perfect example of current lame artwork trends, with a dumber tagline, a lazy slant to suggest "action," and cheesier fonts. The single-disc non-eco Blu-Ray case is packed into a slipcover with identical artwork and there is no insert inside the case.
The Video and Audio
Unfortunately, all that goes to hell for a 15-20 minute nighttime sequence that just looks ugly, likely thanks to digital transformation of day-into-night. Skin turns blue. Detail gets murky. Trees appear blobby and ill-defined. It's not a deal-breaker, but it is a blemish. However, I did not see any banding problems, even in the darkest, murkiest shots, although some light artifacting can occasionally be spotted in those areas if the viewer is intentionally looking for them, and some crush during the night sequence.
Millennium's 1.78:1 AVC 1080p presentation of Killing Season is okay, thanks to issues with the film itself. For the first hour, problems are minor. A few seconds of, ugly, standard-definition stock footage is used, and one solitary early shot of De Niro has motion ghosting (possibly shot with the wrong settings). Contrast varies, appearing satisfyingly inky in one shot and gray in the next. Throughout, detail is very good and colors are nicely saturated, even a brief scene inside Ben's darkroom and shots of dishes cooking inside his oven, which have the kind of intense reds that transfers struggle with. It also looks as if Johnson has intentionally used lighting or some other camera technology to soften the picture just a touch -- it's not film-like, per se, because this is a largely grainless image, but it has an equivalent effect, making the footage feel less "digital."
A Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track gets rolling right out of the gate with a Serbian war sequence filled with gunfire and explosions from every angle. Later, there's a thunderstorm with nice immersiveness using rain and thunder, a bit of time spent on a rushing river, and of course, lots of arrows whipping to and fro to give the viewer a thrill. However, the track mysteriously struggles a little with an early dialogue scene: a phone conversation between Ben and Chris sounds muffled on De Niro's end and flat on Ventimiglia's side. Later dialogue sounds just fine, so it's far from a significant issue, but it is noticeable. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
An extremely short making-of featurette (2:23, HD) that still manages to be clip-heavy is the only inclusion. For the length, some faintly interesting comments about why the three big names chose to do the movie.
Trailers for Upside Down, Stuck in Love, The Iceman, and What Maisie Knew play before the main menu. A trailer for Killing Season is also included under the "Previews" menu.
Ambition is always appreciated, especially when it comes to DTV films, but Killing Season passes up conventional fun in favor of mediocre drama. Rent Face / Off or Heat instead and skip this one.
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