The sight of Robert De Niro and John Travolta sharing the screen for the first time reps the one and only selling point of “Killing Season,” a cartoonishly violent drama routinely helmed by Mark Steven Johnson (“Daredevil”). The actors play troubled vets of the Balkan wars — De Niro a U.S. colonel, Travolta a member of the infamous Serbian Scorpions — who find that a literal and metaphorical spilling of guts is just the thing to exorcise their war demons. Millennium Entertainment will hedge its bets for this gory, arrow-in-cheek actioner with a simultaneous theatrical and VOD release Stateside on July 12.
Given that offensiveness massively outweighs entertainment in this two-hander, replete with graphically and gleefully depicted torture, it seems odd that the project attracted two stars of this caliber. Perhaps to justify his choice of a darker role, Travolta has been gamely supporting the pic with pre-release personal appearances in a variety of prestige venues, although it’s far from typical festival fare.
A quick prologue played under a pounding score capsulizes the genocide that took place in Bosnia in the 1990s, and implies that NATO forces carried out summary executions of newly captured Serbian war criminals after liberating an internment camp. Hoping to confront his would-be executioner is the loquacious Emil Kovacs (Travolta, sporting a hard-to-understand Eastern European accent, a shaved head and bizarre, unattractive facial hair), who was shot in the back by Col. Benjamin Ford (De Niro) and left for dead.
The tight-lipped Ford also bears physical and psychic wounds from his time in Bosnia; embittered and wracked with pain, he leaves a near-hermitlike existence and can’t get over his failed marriage. The only shooting he does these days is with his camera.
Clad in a pilgrim’s hood, carrying a staff and resembling a medieval-era Grim Reaper, Kovacs materializes one stormy night near Ford’s luxe cabin deep in the Appalachian mountains and gains entry by fixing the older man’s car. A slow, talky second-quarter setup establishes that the men share a taste for archery, Johnny Cash and Jagermeister. Gee, in another world they might have been friends.
The third quarter supplies ample doses of table-turning action and groan-inducing visual effects as Ford accompanies Kovacs on a hunting expedition, only to discover who’s meant to be the quarry. It’s the cinematic equivalent of those old “Spy vs. Spy” comicstrips in which two nearly identical antagonists use a variety of ruses and booby traps to inflict grievous bodily harm. Among the most gruesome assaults shown here are Ford being forced to insert a rope through his arrow-pierced calf, and a bound and bloody Kovacs essentially being waterboarded with a pitcher of salty lemonade.
Given the overall problems of tone, the pic’s erstwhile happy ending isn’t surprising even though it strikes one of many false notes here. Perhaps even Quentin Tarantino couldn’t have found the right tone for the screenplay’s mix of gratuitous violence and pretentious philosophizing about extenuating circumstances, confession and redemption.
The screenplay by Evan Daugherty (“Snow White and the Huntsman”), which was included on the 2008 Black List, originally was titled “Shrapnel,” was set in the 1970s, and centered around an American WWII vet with a piece of metal buried in his leg and a former Nazi officer; John McTiernan was attached to helm. Given the greater historical distance and the presence of a stronger director, that project may well have played better than what has made it to the screen.
Johnson seems more at ease capturing cliched shots of majestic nature than he is guiding his scenery-chewing leading players. Moving with his trademark physical grace, Travolta offers a twinkly-eyed perf that undercuts his character’s rep as a cold-blooded killer. Although mostly registering as weary and exasperated, De Niro offers a few twinkles of his own in the over-the-top sequence that starts with him nailing Travolta’s profile to his front door with an arrow.
The glorious autumnal forests, fields, mountains and waterfalls of Georgia are shown to their best advantage. Tech credits are pro, despite Christopher Young’s grating, overinsistent score.