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Violet & Daisy

Geoffrey Fletcher's directorial debut manages to be precious in a way that's sadly far-removed from the approach he took adapting the novel "Push" by Sapphire.

With:
Daisy Saoirse Ronan Violet Alexis Bledel Michael James Gandolfini Iris Marianne Jean-Baptiste Russ Danny Trejo April Tatiana Maslany

Following his Oscar-winning script for “Precious,” Geoffrey Fletcher’s directorial debut manages to be precious in a whole different way, sadly far-removed from the approach he took adapting the novel “Push” by Sapphire. Last and least in a run of pics that fancy teen girls as cold-blooded killers, “Violet & Daisy” offers a questionably sentimental spin on the Hit Girl gimmick seen in “Kick-Ass,” casting the armed-and-dangerous stars of “Sin City” (Alexis Bledel) and “Hanna” (Saoirse Ronan) as a pair of implausible assassins. This cutesy dark comedy seems destined for cult status, but could also connect with less Puritanical overseas auds.

Written pre-“Precious” in a way that could’ve been made for virtually no money, “Violet & Daisy” benefits from Fletcher’s recent fame, which enables the NYU Tisch grad to shoot his skewed fable in New York with a name cast and decent budget. Frankly, you’d never guess the two pics came from the same pen, so different is this uneasy blend of the hitman and coming-of-age genres.

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Still relatively new to the whole contract killing thing, Daisy (Ronan) blazes her way through the opening scene like an pro, celebrating her 18th birthday by offing an apartment full of heavily armed Mafia types. Fletcher fully embraces the absurdity, sending Daisy and her ruthless best friend Violet (Bledel, more than a dozen years her co-star’s senior) into the firefight disguised as nuns, packing shotguns in pizza boxes. With realism out the window, the rules of this imaginary world take some time to absorb, since one’s instinct is to keep young ladies as far away from heavy artillery as possible.

When they’re not blasting bad guys, Violet and Daisy play patty-cake and behave like girls half their age (their getaway car is a tricycle, which suggests perhaps the roles were written for even younger actresses). Holding their guns like Hong Kong action stars, the pair kill without remorse or motive, other than to buy the latest dresses from their teenybopper idol, Barbie Sunday — at least, that’s the reason they accept the assignment that preoccupies them for the rest of the film. After “Hanna,” which blended its own surreality with a fairly complex portrait of a child groomed to kill, “Violet & Daisy” feels radically disconnected from recognizable human behavior.

Then James Gandolfini enters the picture as the mysterious Michael, bringing a soul to Fletcher’s wink-wink style. Though the helmer has provided only one previous job to judge by, it seems safe to assume that most targets either beg for their lives or shoot back. Not this guy. He practically wants to be killed, going so far as to bake the girls oatmeal cookies for their trouble.

Most of “Violet & Daisy” takes place in Michael’s apartment, where the script must keep coming up with excuses to get the girls alone with him so he can offer them the kind of one-on-one advice that just might save their lives. First, they run out of bullets, which gives a rival gang opportunity to drop by while Daisy is unarmed and Violet is off making a supply run — one that lands her in the middle of an improbable Mexican standoff at the neighborhood hardware store. Later, Daisy steps out, so Violet can take a nap.

By this point, most auds will have picked sides in the film’s inevitable love-it-or-hate-it divide, but Fletcher doesn’t give either camp the satisfaction of pinning down the pic’s tone. The laughs, which reach their outrageous peak with something the girls call “the internal bleeding dance,” gradually taper off, making room for carefully manufactured emotion. There’s a magic-trick quality to the film’s construction, in which Fletcher distracts with one hand while subtly adjusting the mood with the other. The impressive upshot of this is that by the time people catch on that the cartoon has given way to something more sincere, they may already care about the characters.

“Violet & Daisy” expands what could have been a single-set play with two strong-impression cameos — Danny Trejo as the girl’s boss and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as a sniper ready to take them out if the girls botch the job — but lacks a character menacing enough to create suspense. For the story to bloom, Violet and Daisy must stall, and yet, the longer they do, the more ludicrous it seems that anyone would trust two hit-girls to do a hitman’s job.

Production values are strong, especially Vanja Cernjul’s widescreen lensing, which translates some of Fletcher’s wilder first-time-filmmaker impulses into clean, classy compositions.

Violet & Daisy

Production: A Magic Violet presentation in association with GreeneStreet Films. (International sales: CAA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Geoffrey Fletcher, Bonnie Timmermann. Executive producers, John Penotti, James Skotchdopole. Co-producer, Steve Kempf. Directed, written by Geoffrey Fletcher.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Vanja Cernjul; editor, Joe Klotz; music, Paul Cantelon; music supervisor, Susan Jacobs; production designer, Patrizia Von Brandenstein; art director, Fredda Slavin; set decorator, Regina Graves; costume designer, Jenny Gering; sound (Dolby Digital), Richard W. Murphy; supervising sound editor, Robert Hein; re-recording mixer, Roberto Fernandez; special effects, Philip Beck Jr., Robert Beck; visual effects supervisor, J. John Corbett; associate producers, Rachel Israel, I-fan Quirk; assistant director, Robert C. Albertell; casting, Bonnie Timmermann. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 15, 2011. Running time: 96 MIN.

Cast: Daisy Saoirse Ronan Violet Alexis Bledel Michael James Gandolfini Iris Marianne Jean-Baptiste Russ Danny Trejo April Tatiana Maslany

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