Fairly early in “Killerman,” a punishingly brutal thriller about a memory-impaired money launderer caught between murderous dirty cops and an ambitious Slavic gangster, writer-director Malik Bader (“Cash Only”) more or less announces that he’s seen every gritty ‘70s crime drama that you have, and maybe a few that you missed, and he’s intent on distilling the down-and-dirty essence of those blasts from the past in a derivative yet dynamic mashup. In other words, he gives you fair warning, and he’s true to his word.
Liam Hemsworth stars as the aptly named Moe Diamond, a dark prince of New York’s diamond district, a smooth operator who, within the space of an hour or two on a typical afternoon, can translate huge quantities of a client’s illicit cash into expensive commodities, and then into a fistful of cashier’s checks. When we first see Moe, he and good buddy Bobby “Skunk” Santos (Emory Cohen) are poised to score a cool million each by discreetly moving money — lots of money — for Perico (Zlatco Buric), Skunk’s well-connected uncle, who’s on the verge of turning legit through a high-stakes real-estate investment.
Just before they can get the first batch of money moving, however, Perico hits pause. This leaves Moe and Skunk with $2 million temporarily on their hands — a sum, Skunk figures, they can exploit for quick profit with an extracurricular cocaine purchase. Moe think this is a bad idea, and his worst fears are realized when crooked cops intrude on their rendezvous with duplicitous drug dealers. One thing leads to another, and a high-speed auto chase ends with a nasty crash that leaves Moe amnesiac.
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Bader does a respectable job of sustaining interest by repeatedly introducing clichés and genre tropes, then upending expectations or taking unpredictable detours. “Killerman” is the sort of gnarly B-movie that keeps you off balance by killing off (or at least seriously inconveniencing) stock characters that normally enjoy some degree of happily-ever-aftering in traditional thrillers, and making even the more predictable demises genuinely shocking.
The amnesia gimmick proves to be not as important to the plot as the relationship between Moe and Skunk while the latter attempts to reintroduce the former to people and places in a purposeful fast-walk down memory lane. It’s not really a question of where Moe has stashed Perico’s money and the drugs — he and Skunk both know where they’re hidden, though Moe sounds awfully upset that he may be something so low-class as “a drug dealer.” (He isn’t, of course, and Skunk sounds amusingly apologetic when he explains that, hey, their enterprise was more along the lines of a one-night stand.) Rather, Skunk realizes, and Moe quickly grasps, that the cops who interrupted the drug deal and instigated the car chase likely will continue to make their lives difficult — and, arguably worse, will convince Perico to cut his losses.
There is a third-act twist, but to reveal more than that would be grossly unfair. Suffice it to say that, even if you see it coming, you may still be surprised by the mayhem it triggers.
“Killerman” is pulpy and propulsive in its retrograde thrills, and while that might not be the same thing as calling it a great or even a good movie, it’s an admission that, somewhere in the world of VOD streaming, there’s an audience for it. Credit the brazenly garish 16mm cinematography by DP Ken Seng, and the wall-to-wall synthesizer score by composers Julian DeMarre and Heiko Maile, for enhancing the ‘70s flavor. The leads are credible and creditable across the board, and the supporting players — including Buric, whose performance could be labeled Swift’s Premium and sold by the pound; Nickola Shreli as the dirtiest of the dirty cops; and Suraj Sharma as a drug dealer whose pep talk to himself is tragically insufficient — are everything they have to be.