In a cliche that became institutionalized during the ’80s and began fossilizing somewhere around “Taken,” it seems no action hero has sufficient motivation anymore unless his loved ones have been kidnapped and/or (preferably) killed. At least three characters labor under that burden in “24 Hours to Live,” and that’s just one of several elements that might seem preposterous if this film took itself more seriously.
Veteran stuntman Brian Smrz’s second directorial feature doesn’t quite reach the “John Wick” level of high-body-count inspirational trash, but it gets close enough. Ethan Hawke plays the inevitable grizzled former operative dragged out of retirement into a hornet’s nest of global shootouts, double-crossings and evil conspiracies. So long as you turn your thinking cap off, this high-energy enterprise will provide plenty of less-than-highbrow fun.
Travis Conrad (Hawke) is a former elite soldier-turned-murky mercenary who’s spent years taking out presumed evildoers as a private contractor for shadowy org Red Mountain. Recently, he’s been on hiatus, however — mostly boozing it up in the Florida Keys alongside equally ragged pal Frank, played by Rutger Hauer — since his wife and son were killed a year earlier. The vacation is suddenly ended, rather forcefully, when former Army buddy Jim (Paul Anderson) insists, on orders from CEO Wetzler (Liam Cunningham), that Travis assassinate whistleblower Keith (Tyrone Keogh) before Keith can testify in a UN investigation. Iraq veteran Keith has already survived one onslaught of paid killers, and is on the lam under the protection of Hong Kong-based Interpol agent Lin (Xu Qing).
Flying to South Africa, Travis manages to insinuate himself into Lin’s hotel bed before delivering a most ungentlemanly post-coital farewell. But Lin does not die — the movie is chock-full of people who miraculously recover from grievous bodily harm. In fact, she manages to kill Travis not long after, but he’s soon revived, thanks to an experimental procedure Red Mountain has been working on.
The good news, natch, is that he’s alive. The bad news is that it’s only for 24 hours (and there will be hallucinatory-flashback side effects as a reminder of his impending mortality). Yet worse news includes the fact that “real Mengele-type s—t” was practiced on numerous human guinea pigs to achieve the breakthrough that has bought Travis’ temporary reprieve (as Keith witnessed). Also, trusty Jim may no longer be trustworthy, and seemingly everybody’s still-living wives and children are now under mortal threat by the ruthless Wetzler.
This is the kind of movie in which several dozen people must die so that one child might live — and that’s just one bullet-riddled set-piece among many. Bouncing from one colorful location to another, “Hours” handles its formulaic elements with enough vigor to avoid a sense of excess deja vu, let alone sentimental hokum. Indeed, the team-written script is so packed with incident and subsidiary characters that the titular “D.O.A.”-style gimmick gets somewhat lost in the shuffle. (The fadeout also violates logic.)
But no one, save humorless sticklers for narrative credibility, will care. And what business do they have climbing aboard this kind of genre thrill-ride, anyway? Smrz brings considerable gusto if not much conceptual originality to the pileup of dire crises, keeping the pace brisk and seriocomic tone variable. He’s helped by above-average contributions in all tech and design departments, lending this multinational B-pic the flash, if not quite the scale, of far costlier productions.
Also elevating potentially generic material is Hawke, whose disinterest in macho cool proves useful. He’d rather play up his deadly hero’s fallible distress than go for Rambo-like invincibility, which definitely adds more humor and humanity to the mix. Anderson and the rather briefly seen Hauer also manage some droll notes amid a supporting cast that’s otherwise solid but mostly has to play it straight.