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Deep in the Appalachian Mountains, a reclusive American military veteran (Robert De Niro) and a European tourist (John Travolta) strike up an unlikely friendship. But, when the tourist's true intentions come to light, what follows is a tense battle across some of America's most forbidding landscape, proving the old adage: the purest form of war is one-on-one. (From Millennium Films’ official synopsis)

Killing Season
Mark Steven Johnson’s Killing Season comes riddled with red flags. Chief among these is Johnson himself, the once highly-sought screenwriter of feckless, feel-good Hollywood comedies ( Grumpy Old Men, Jack Frost) and writer/director of formless, tacky Marvel adaptations ( Daredevil, Ghost Rider). Killing Season is the first film Johnson has directed for hire. The film was prepped as a John McTiernan vehicle (possibly before Johnny ended up in prison) and, despite the diminishing returns of McTiernan’s post-‘90s work, he seems a better fit for the grim, action-based material than the guy who last wasted audiences’ time with the lifeless antics of When in Rome. The second flag is screenwriter Evan Daugherty, who is best known for selling his rancid Snow White and The Huntsman spec script for an astronomical sum and, really, not much else. The final and perhaps most frightening of these flags is the calibre of the main cast. There was a time when pairing Robert De Niro and John Travolta would be an exciting idea, but that time passed about a decade ago, when the two waning superstars were still making interesting movies. There’s also the matter of the film’s modest release, which is almost invariably a sign of trouble when the cast should be inspiring box office confidence.

I’d love to say that Johnson and company overcome expectations, but, unfortunately, Killing Season is more or less exactly what you assumed/feared it would be. For what it’s worth, Johnson is acting pretty ambitiously here. In interviews, he cites John Boorman’s Deliverance as an inspiration and I can see the vague resemblance (brutal human violence set against the rich natural backdrop), but more recent stuff, like Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne movies, seem to have had a bigger effect on his shaky, cinéma vérité aesthetic. Separated from the hideously CG-enhanced worlds of his Marvel movies, Johnson captures plenty of beautiful Appalachian imagery and shoots effectively gritty, mostly discernable action. In the end, Killing Season might actually be Johnson’s finest achievement as a director, but sadly, it still isn’t good enough to lift the material above Daugherty’s impossibly mediocre screenplay. There’s no need to approach the film with lofty intentions – it is a B-product and probably should’ve been treated as such. Though it may seem intriguing to base the action around Bosnian War veterans, the novelty wears thin quickly as Killing Season turns into a typical and repetitive mano-a-mano battle of brawn and wits (Travolta captures/tortures/lectures De Niro, De Niro escapes, De Niro captures/tortures/lectures Travolta, rinse, repeat), despite some good efforts to punch things up with creative, gory violence. I assume that Daugherty intended the audience to switch sympathetic alliances as facts are revealed, similar to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat or, more recently, David Slade’s Hard Candy, but neither character is interesting or likeable enough to garner much sympathy in the first place.

Killing Season
It’s pretty obvious why De Niro and Travolta would be interested in the project – it’s very talky, built around two extremely centralized performances (the other characters, played by Milo Ventimiglia and Elizabeth Olin, are incidental), and each of them is handed at least three long, expository monologues. With the right actors it could be a theoretically good movie. Unfortunately, De Niro and Travolta appear to be acting in two very different films. De Niro brings a fair degree of weight to his part, though it might be closer to ‘pathetic’ than ‘heavy.’ It’s probably worth noting that his part was originally intended for Nicolas Cage. Travolta’s un-tempered performance is more indicative of what we could’ve expected from a McTeirnan-directed re-teaming of the guys that hammed up John Woo’s Face/Off so gloriously. The only time De Niro and Travolta’s performances sync up is an all-too-brief moment at the center of the movie, where De Niro prepares a salty lemonade solution to ‘waterboard’ Travolta, who has just taken an arrow through the cheek. Otherwise, the divided acting tone is just another example of the film’s overall lack of commitment to tone.

Killing Season

Video


Killing Season was shot on 35mm and is presented here in 2.35:1 ( edit: typo, it's 1.78:1), 1080p video. Steady fine grain levels and punchy black and dynamic white-level ranges, but, overall, Johnson and cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. (obviously a leftover from McTiernan’s time on the project, based on their repetitive re-teaming) take pains to alter the material, so that it appears uncannily digital. The pre-credit sequence (which is seen again in flashback throughout the film) is graded to appear golden (not sepia, golden) and set it apart from the rest of the film, which is graded to appear, sigh, orange & teal. Well, maybe more golden & teal, but certainly not naturally. These hues are consistently and tightly represented throughout the film and are sometimes highlighted and/or warmed-over by some incredibly vivid reds. The harsh separations are well-supported by deep blacks and aren’t hampered by too many edge haloes. The weird colour qualities aren’t the only uncanny element here – there are also some blurring effects peppered throughout, as if I had turned on my set’s digital smoothing option. Outside of the overwhelming darkness of a handful of scenes, I found this blurring to be the transfer’s most problematic element. Detail levels are uniformly impressive, especially expansive shots of the Appalachian wilderness where every single stick and leaf can be seen and counted without any substantial sharpening effects. The darkest sequences have minor low-level noise issues, but the bulk of the ‘noise’ here is clearly film grain.

Killing Season

Audio


Killing Season is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound. The film opens with big and loud war footage to set the stage for the man to man conflict later in the movie. It’s not visually overwhelming, but Johnson gets a lot of production value out of multi-channel, punchy gunfire, directionally enhanced fighter jets, and LFE-throbbing explosions. The rest of the story is a lot more intimate, so the sound design follows suit, including subtle environmental ambience like chirping birds, blowing wind, and a rumbling thunderstorm. Probably the coolest use of directional elements happens during the third act, when De Niro’s character attaches wires to the beams inside of a derelict church so that he can manipulate the creaking wood and trick Travolta out of locating him. The always dependable Christopher Young’s musical score elevates the film beyond its means. Sometimes, Young skews the music into uncomfortably whimsical territory, but is usually appropriately mournful and effectively spiked with digital augmentations. Johnson also fills aural space with some Johnny Cash classics, which come through nice and rich through the front channels.

Extras


The only extras are a brief EPK (2:20, HD) with Travolta, De Niro, and Johnson, and trailers for other Millennium Films releases.

Killing Season

Overall


Killing Season isn’t nearly as bad as I feared, even close to good at some points, but it just doesn’t work, neither as a performance-based arty thriller, nor as an exercise in B-move action. I’d recommend watching William Friedkin’s The Hunted or Lee Tamahori’s The Edge, instead, but I don’t really care for them very much either, so I guess if you like those two movies, Killing Season would actually make a pretty good companion piece. Millennium’s Blu-ray disc does look very sharp, however, with only some digital smoothing artefacts to sully its near perfection, and it features a dynamic yet subtle Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. The extras are practically non-existent.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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