Mathieu Kassovitz, who burst onto the international scene in 1995, winning the best director prize at Cannes with "La Haine" (Hate), stumbles badly with his third feature, "Assassin(s)." Squandering consistently impressive technical skills on the most hackneyed of treatises, this insubstantial tale about an aged professional hit man attempting to pass on the dying art of killing imparts the trite message that too much TV breeds moral indifference and violence. Overblown, overlong and naggingly narcissistic, this numbing drama looks set for critical assassination and commercial burial.
Expanding on a character and story previously seen in Kassovitz’s 1992 short film “Assassins,” the new feature centers on seasoned specialist, Mr. Wagner (Michel Serrault), a 70-year-old killer whose shaking hands and failing faculties are forcing him to consider retirement. Looking for someone to whom he can hand down the trade he has practiced with a craftsman’s pride for 40 years, he settles on Max (Kassovitz), a passionless 25-year-old welder who dabbles in a little neighborhood burglary on the side.
Wagner gives Max an instant induction into his art when he breaks into the home of a neighbor (Robert Gendreu), beats him senseless and then forces his reluctant young apprentice to shoot the man. Kassovitz stretches out the horrific, bloody death and the anticipation of Max’s first kill to sadistic extremes, and then needlessly returns to it later to add to its bludgeoning effect.
Accepting the offer to become Wagner’s protege, Max moves in with the old man and starts studying killing skills, weapons logic and the sense of ethics his mentor views as essential to the trade. When Wagner collapses after a strenuous — and, in terms of the plot, somewhat ludicrous — spin around a dance floor, Max goes out alone on a hit. But unbeknownst to Wagner, he enlists the help of his teenage friend Mehdi (Mehdi Benoufa), and a slip-up in the job forces the ruthless Wagner to choose a new apprentice.
The central demon in Kassovitz’s tri-generational scenario is television, and his far-from-original point is sledgehammered with uncommon relentlessness. TVs are blaring through almost every scene, with constant audio accompaniment of inane variety and gameshows, cheery advertising voiceovers and jingles. Both Max and Mehdi display a trance-like fascination with the tube, and the latter’s prowess with a pistol is the result of years of vidgame training.
In case the agenda is still not clear enough, Kassovitz resorts to the derivative gimmick of a sunny sitcom in which squeaky-clean teens engage in brutally sexual, murderous games. The set piece makes Oliver Stone’s similar riffs in “Natural Born Killers” look like models of Bressonian subtlety. Equally heavy-handed is the diminishing volume on a TV discussion of youth violence, suggesting the futility of debate, and a very tired speech by Wagner, charging that the real murderers are politicians, the press and mega-corporations.
While the characters are virtually bereft of psychological complexities, Serrault’s skills initially create some interest in irascible Wagner, who inexplicably lives in shabby conditions despite what would seem a lucrative career. But this soon dissolves as the slender premise gets stretched way beyond its due. Many scenes reportedly were constructed during shooting, which may partly explain the unformed feel of the script. Kassovitz assigns himself light on-camera duties, merely maintaining a brooding, intense act. Newcomer Benoufa is convincing, though his character treads the most predictable path.
What makes Kassovitz’s lack of fresh creative fuel here particularly disappointing is the film’s dazzling technical execution. Lenser Pierre Aim’s gliding camerawork and cool, symmetrical compositions are no less eye-catching than his distinctive B&W work on “La Haine.” Editing and sound design also are highly tuned. Regular Coen brothers collaborator Carter Burwell’s potent, dark score and a sprinkling of edgy Gallic rap cap off the slick but empty package.