Review: KILLERMAN, Criminal Worlds Collide, As Pots Boil
The opening moments of Killerman are a masterclass in moving money on the streets.
In a sequence that runs 8 minutes or so, a mid-level money launderer first swaps a banker's box full of cash for a solid block of gold, then back to cash via buying jewelry, then finally into a series of quarter million dollar cashier’s cheques. It involves multiple cab rides, dirty storefronts, bustling jewelry markets and anonymous teller windows in anonymous city buildings. In our current day and age, where money is almost completely a virtual thing, there is still the underground market of cash, and moving gargantuan sums of physical money across digital barriers is difficult.
Watching this complicated street dance feels like a kind of throwback to a different time. In fact, watching Killerman is to go back to the 1990s era of masculinity, urban blight, and violently corrupt organizations on both sides of the law. For his sophomore effort, director Malik Bader moves the action from the Albanian neighbourhoods of decaying Detroit, which were memorably essayed in Cash Only, to the Big Apple, the city of hustles.
Moe has his relatively low-risk racket with relatively steady income thing going for some time. He is good at it. And It is enough to build a nest egg with his pregnant girlfriend, so they can both move on to something more legit. His boss is an aging Eastern European slumlord named Perico, who runs his various drug and shakedown schemes out of a dilapidated garage in a dodgy, nondescript neighbourhood; lots of unemployed men hang out on the street in the front of his place.
Like any New York boss worth their salt, he is looking to move his millions of ill-gotten gains into real estate and politics. Perico’s incompetent nephew, appropriately named Skunk, has been getting pissed at his uncle berating his hot-headed nature, and the privileges of nepotism.
He idolizes Moe, even as he kind of cramps Moe’s style. So, when another laundry-load of money gets delayed for various other reasons, Skunk manages to convince Moe to take advantage of the 24-hour gap, and do a quick drug deal to make use of this money just sitting around doing nothing. And Skunk knows some forthright, upstanding Nigerian drug dealers who are looking to offload some cocaine. With a quick turnaround to another buy, they can split the profit. What Skunk does not know is that these Nigerians are in bed with a pair of crooked cops with their own scheme of ‘borrowing’ drugs from the evidence locker and putting it to good use.
If you have watched movies before, you know that things do not go as planned. All of these worlds collide, and, in the ensuing clusterfuck, Moe gets hit on the head. Hurt, bleeding and not remembering much of the past couple days, he is not exactly sure why he has a trunk full of money and drugs, which he has to untangle before Perico finds out, or the cops (clean or dirty) will catch up with the messy trail he and Skunk are leaving in their wake.
Car chases, double crosses, random nightclub sex, vicious dogs in cages (the director seems to have a thing for this, as it was front and centre in his previous film), and various levels of law enforcement all become entangled. Guns are shot. Cars are smashed. People are set on fire. Plots are twisted.
To Bader's credit, all of this is smoothly orchestrated. There are even moments of cinematic virtuosity. One magnificent action shot sees the camera start under a major bridge, before gliding out backwards to capture a rushing BMW getaway car. This is tight, Fast and the Furious kind of camera movement. But the action and convoluted plotting, coupled with the amnesia conceit (that comes and goes when it is convenient, until the end of the film), does much to sacrifice any kind of character nuance.
One of the principal charms of his previous feature, Cash Only, was the lived-in feel of the Albanian community, the parties, the barbershops, etc. It augmented the rest of the action and thrills; in fact it elevated it. Here, all of this is all sacrificed for speed. The result is a more conventional, commercial kind of product. I would argue it is not a better one, for all its bells and whistles.
The Albanian-American lead actor of Cash Only, Nickola Shreli, who was so great as the stressed landlord, up to his neck in petty crime, is carried over here in a pivotal role, as fast-talking corrupt cop. Shreli excels at being both crazy, charming and ingratiating, all at the same time. But the character lacks the wiggle room in the plot mechanations here beyond simply Bad Guy. This is the case with the long list of characters, including the barely-there pregnant girlfriend. Dianne Guerrero gets stuck with a rather thankless lone female role, in a movie of men doing very male things.
Liam Hemsworth (the other Hemsworth) is solid as Moe, who carries things with an easy attractive grace in the opening (admittedly best) moments of the film. He is more than capable as the violent amnesiac trying to keep things together, but really is not much of a formed character, almost by design.
Zlatko Buric, the fine Croatian character actor, turns in a coughing fit of a performance, one that is difficult to pin down, really. This is to the point where I thought his character might be suffering from cancer, or some other life-diminishing ailment. It is a strange series of acting choices that is night and day apart from his kindly opera singer in the recent Teen Spirit. Its oddity is a respite from the stock character call-sheet the rest of the film draws from, though.
Part of me thinks that writer-director Malik Bader simply likes riffing on early Nicolas Winding Refn efforts like Bleeder, a ‘day of hell and reckoning’ crime thriller starring Kim Bosnia, which also showcased a young Mads Mikkelsen and *nudge, nudge* Zlatko Buric. Bleeder is fast, gritty and seasoned with with a dash of drama and a lot of on-the-streets grit. But they still foregrounded character.
There was a slew of mid-budget 1990s crime films, which put a fresh sheen on the 1970s dirty cop ultra-masculinity via escalating energy and pace, and a slather of arthouse experimenting. Killerman echoes only the prosaic, plotting, elements of films like Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and Danny Cannon’s Phoenix. I bet you do not remember the latter one, which starred Ray Liotta, Anthony LaPaglia, and Anjelica Huston. You might not remember KIllerman in a couple of years either. It is a workman-like, 'get in get out' piece of potboiling entertainment, but the kind that does not retain any kind of shelf life.
Review originally published during the Fantasia International Film Festival in July 2019. The film will open in select theaters on Friday, July 19, 2019, via Blue Fox Entertainment. Visit the official site for more information.