During a rare moment of quiet amid the glass-smashing, brain-bashing mayhem of “Hitman: Agent 47,” a character offers the wise observation that we are all a bit more complicated than our internal circuitry might suggest. Applying this logic to the movie itself, it’s fair to conclude that while Aleksander Bach’s directing debut is indeed the junky, incoherent shoot-’em-up we feared it might be, to dismiss it as just another late-August studio craptacular doesn’t quite do it justice. But what to call it, exactly? The 47th best action film of 2015? A feature-length Audi commercial, or a promo reel for the Singapore Tourism Board? The most unnecessary artistic contribution ever made by someone named Bach? Fox is surely hoping that “surprise box office hit” might be a plausible alternative, though the best one will likely be able to say on that front is that where disastrous franchise relaunches are concerned, it’s no “Fantastic Four.”
Indeed, many of those who pay to see “Hitman: Agent 47” will have no idea that it’s a reboot of “Hitman” (2007), the forgettable EuropaCorp-produced first film adapted from the IO Interactive videogame about a chrome-domed, genetically engineered contract killer. Ruthlessly precise in his targeting and virtually invincible, Agent 47 was first played by Tim Olyphant in the first movie and is embodied here by the steely-gazed Rupert Friend (“Homeland”), coolly donning the character’s familiar black suit, white shirt and red necktie. He also sports a back-of-the-head barcode tattoo that serves as a continual visual reminder that 47 was cooked up in a government laboratory back in the 1960s, and that he is a cold-blooded killer devoid of such ordinary human qualities as fear, compassion and love.
In the new film, however, 47’s mission is not to preserve and uphold his murderous order, but rather to destroy it, or at least keep it from being permanently reinstated. To do that, he must head to Berlin and track down Katia (Hannah Ware, “Betrayal”), a guarded young woman who’s spent her entire life looking over her shoulder, and not without reason. As is revealed soon enough, Katia possesses both a mysterious ability to foresee the immediate future and a mysterious connection with Dr. Litvenko (Ciaran Hinds), the scientist who first devised the Agent program. Also in the mix is John Smith (Zachary Quinto), a highly skilled fighter who early on assumes the role of Katia’s protector, giving her fair warning about exactly what kind of danger she’s up against. Together they will reinforce the well-known cinematic truth (also evident in the upcoming Owen Wilson thriller “No Escape”) that if you’re looking for a place to hide, you should really steer clear of your nearest U.S. embassy, where Agent 47 stages an audacious, foolhardy assault on Katia, John and the laws of probability.
Eventually the characters make their way to Singapore to take down a sinister group known as the Syndicate Organization (not to be confused, presumably, with the Syndicate in “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation”) that wants to kick the Agent program into high gear, an act that would have disastrous consequences for humanity. But never mind all that. Insofar as “Hitman: Agent 47” is about anything, really, it’s about the pleasures of being on location — from the gratuitous image of Ware taking a dip in a five-star-hotel swimming pool to the sight of Singapore’s staggering Gardens by the Bay, where we’re briefly allowed to stop and smell the orchids right before an impromptu shootout. It’s about the sheen a luxury vehicle throws off as it races through the streets of Salzburg, right before getting blown to smithereens, in a sequence that gives the fine folks at Audi more than their money’s worth in product placement.
Before it bogs down in dialogue of the “You (Hero X) and I (Villain Y) are not so very different” variety, the screenplay — credited to Skip Woods (who wrote the first “Hitman”) and Michael Finch — manages to juggle at least a few surprises where its characters’ motives and identities are concerned. (Judging by the particularly inexplicable developments in the muddled final reels, some of the specifics still remain a mystery to the writers themselves.) And at its core, the story does express a modicum of curiosity about whether a government-funded killing machine could retain his conscience — a question that nods briefly in the direction of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” with its incomparably poignant man-or-machine riddles.
Still, its target audience probably won’t be too devastated to learn that “Hitman: Agent 47” is not, first and foremost, a profound meditation on what it means to be human. Bach is too busy showing us what brains and other body parts look like when they’re dashed against the glossy white interiors of Syndicate HQ (courtesy of production designer Sebastian Krawinkel), or the bloody mess that ensues when someone gets sucked into the blades of a giant turbine engine — an image that the movie returns to with queasy regularity. Even without these slaughterhouse aesthetics, the script would give the actors little room to maneuver; in a role once intended for Paul Walker before his death in 2013, the unfriendly-looking Friend more or less gets the job done, though both Quinto and Hinds feel disappointingly underused. As for relative newcomer Ware, she looks credibly anxious even as her Katia becomes one of the more perfunctory action heroines in recent memory: a woman with the gift of second sight in a movie that scarcely warrants a first viewing.