For most, “reformed hit man” suggests someone who used to kill people but doesn’t anymore. In the case of “Mr. Right,” however, the label has an altogether different meaning: Instead of bumping off the targets he’s hired to eliminate, Sam Rockwell’s born-again executioner kills the folks who contracted him instead. Not an especially sustainable work model, professionally speaking (it’s murder on word-of-mouth, for starters), but then, this fixer is ready to make some changes in his own life, maybe even find romance with an on-the-rebound Anna Kendrick — which is where Max Landis’ ultra-cutesy script picks up, asking whether a character like that can find and sustain love … or else die trying. For about a decade after “Pulp Fiction,” such quirky hit-man comedies were all the rage, though in the post-“Gigli” era, (the eerily similar) “Mr. Right” just feels wrong.
That’s not to say audiences won’t appreciate Landis’ winking brand of forced cleverness, which finds a simpatico directorial accomplice in Spanish helmer Paco Cabezas (“Neon Flesh”). Still, this peculiar high-danger romance — which plays like watered-down Elmore Leonard or imitation Tarantino — is a risky retro back-step for an up-and-coming young screenwriter with such hip credits as “Chronicle” and “American Ultra” to his name. Hollywood has a phrase to describe such projects, “execution dependent,” and this one ultimately comes down to attitude and chemistry — and not just Rockwell and Kendrick’s either (though the two affable comic thesps make an adorable couple), but the film’s itself.
Striking an almost cartoonish pose vis-a-vis both love and violence, “Mr. Right” introduces the couple in full-on hyperbole mode, giving each of the characters old-fogey names so that it can subsequently tease them for it. Kendrick plays Martha Agatha, an eager-to-please nester with terrible taste in men who catches her b.f. cheating, and instead of losing her temper, actually allows the cad to propose a threesome. Somewhere across town, Rockwell’s Francis drops by a client’s hotel, pops the woman who’d ordered her husband dead and then dances his way through an ambush overseen by the man who trained him (Tim Roth).
Yes, that’s right, Francis dances: Where his spectacularly clumsy adversaries punch and shoot their problems away, Francis uses tango-style moves to get the better of these goons — not terribly plausible, but a delight to watch, as it’s nearly always Rockwell we see performing his own fight scenes (as opposed to a body double). Both his choreography and Cabezas’ direction lend those sequences a jaunty sort of energy, which the film works overtime to extend to the budding romance between Martha and Francis with slightly more awkward results. After all, she has a proven history of dating creeps, and he’s nothing if not creepy when they first meet — bumping into one another at the end of the condom aisle in a convenience store.
Francis lays on what some would call charm, in an almost classically screwball sense, and Martha relents, agreeing to go on a date. He takes her to New Orleans’ most eccentric location, City Park’s Storyland corner, where they trade precious repartee while ambling among fiberglass sculptures, including the Three Little Pigs and a fire-breathing dragon. Not to be outdone by her setting, costume designer Jillian Ann Kreiner dresses them like contestants in a wackiest wardrobe challenge: He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt, while she matches an owl-print dress with a top featuring an astronaut riding a unicorn through a rainbow hoop. It’s a wonder the props department didn’t give one an accordion and the other a croquet mallet just to cherry-top the scene.
Somehow, despite all that stylistic frosting, the two actors’ comic flavor still comes through loud and clear. For what might be the first time in his life, Francis decides to be honest, confiding in Martha from the outset that he’s a professional killer. She assumes he’s joking when he says people are trying to kill him, so caught up in her swoony romantic feelings to notice the bullets zipping by her head or to dwell on the fact he ducks out on a date to kickbox someone outside the restaurant. In fact, despite her initial resistance, it’s fair to say that Martha is smitten, which puts the movie in the opposite position of most misunderstanding based situational comedies.
Usually, someone holds a secret (e.g. she’s really a mermaid, he’s really a hit man) far too long and then is faced with the prospect of everything falling apart when the truth comes out. Here, Francis proves to be too candid, and risks losing Martha when she realizes that he wasn’t joking. It’s actually kind of adorable to see the naive expression of Francis’ face when she recoils in horror after witnessing his first execution. “Are you upset because I killed that guy?” he says in his cutesy-wootsiest voice. “How I feel about that guy has nothing to do with how I feel about you.”
Needing some space to process the fact that her ideal guy comes with such a major drawback, Martha hides out with her best friend (Katie Nehra, showing Cameron Diaz comic potential in a small but significant role). Meanwhile, the prospect of losing her is enough of a wake-up call for Francis to swear off killing ever again, though the timing is bad, as every two-bit would-be assassin in New Orleans has been mobilized to take him out — including a pair of wily gangsters (James Ransone and Michael Eklund) with an elaborate plot to use Francis’ reverse-execution strategy to their advantage, convincing those they want eliminated (like big brother Anson Mount) to hire the unhinged fixer. And when that doesn’t go according to plan, they settle for something really stupid and kidnap Martha.
It’s ultimately too much kookiness for one romantic comedy to handle, complete with Roth doing a southern accent and a random RZA cameo thrown in to spice the gumbo. Ultimately, Landis would do well to dial it back in the future, though he’s to be commended for bringing back a certain fleet action-comedy zing, popular in the ’80s and ’90s (never better than in James Cameron’s “True Lies”), with roots that reach all the way to the earliest days of talking cinema (there’s a dash of “The Thin Man” sizzle between Francis and Martha as well). Despite wildly uneven sound mixing, with its bright colors, buoyant pop tunes and lickety-split pacing, the whole experience is almost suffocatingly fun, especially for those who believe Kendrick and Rockwell would make a killer couple.