Just how many people has “First Kill” star Bruce Willis killed over the course of his career? According to a site called MovieBodyCounts.com (whose statistics look to be about as accurate as a sawed-off shotgun blast), Willis has offed 116 adversaries to date. A more accurate tally is best left to someone with an appetite for action and plenty of free time on their hands — which just so happens to be the kind of person most likely to appreciate another generic collaboration between Willis and director Steven C. Miller (their third, following “Extraction” and “Marauders”).
With little to distinguish this VOD-bound Lionsgate Premiere release from so many straight-to-video thrillers, “First Kill” offers the ever-so-slight novelty of casting Willis as the bad guy. He plays a corrupt rural police chief named Howell, who’s courteous to the locals in small-town Graville, Ohio, but not above murdering them if they get between him and the loot from a recent bank robbery. Howell’s crime might have gone undetected were it not for the arrival of Will (Hayden Christensen), a big-city investment banker who happens to be hunting with his 11-year-old son Danny (Ty Shelton) when he stumbles upon their scheme.
Danny’s been having trouble with a bully at school, and “First Kill” is the roundabout story of how the kid finds the confidence to defend himself in that uniquely American, NRA-approved way: by learning how to handle a firearm. Dad goes out of his way to explain that Danny should never point the gun at another person, but he doesn’t set much of an example. From the moment father and son stumble across what appears to be an execution in the woods, it’s shoot or be shot. And while “First Kill” ain’t Willis’ first kill by any stretch, it could well provide the kid’s.
A blue-state version of the same movie might have followed Danny back to school, where he takes the family rifle and opens fire on his aggressors, but as far as “First Kill” is concerned, the best way to prevent gun violence is with more guns. It’s easy to understand why Miller would have wanted Willis for the role (although he barely exploits the star’s wry, seen-it-all quality), but Christensen comes as more of a surprise, since he reads as a white-collar dandy — someone who hardly seems tough enough to have grown up around guns, and not at all the type who’d pull the trigger if his son was put in danger.
If anything, the script (by Nick Gordon) might have done more with the idea that Will’s masculinity is threatened when he finds himself called upon to protect his family, à la Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.” Instead, Will is depicted as a kind of super-dad who’ll stop at nothing to get Danny back after the unexpectedly sympathetic bank robber (Gethin Anthony) kidnaps the boy — and in so doing, solve the mystery of what happened to his father years before.
Frankly, if forced to bet between John McClane and Anakin Skywalker, I’d take the “Die Hard” tough guy every time, but that’s just the underdog factor Miller is going for, staging a reasonably entertaining series of off-road chases and backwoods shootouts en route to that final confrontation. The movie’s tough-love message: If Danny can manage to get through the experience alive, it’ll take a lot more than a bully to intimidate him next time.