We at The A.V. Club—writers and readers—are imperfect culture warriors, knowledgeable of what we should like and its relation to what we actually like, but even so, we aren't always impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible garbage. Sometimes—frequently, even—a movie or TV show will actually have cartoon stink lines emanating from it, yet we can't stop ourselves from seeing it. It's all about that kernel of hope, that faint possibility that this will be the one in a hundred that all the critics—and our own instincts—were wrong about. Thus is born I Watched This On Purpose, a new feature that will explore the impulse to spend time with entertainments that are unlikely to reward us in any meaningful way, or sometimes any way at all. It isn't a matter of getting to know your enemy, or even of discovering guilty pleasures, but of playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
The first installment: 2007's Hitman, starring Timothy Olyphant.
Cultural infamy: Hitman is based on a video game—never a good sign. It has a 35 rating on Metacritic, putting it solidly in the red (a.k.a. "avoid me!" zone). Our own Tasha Robinson gave it a lowly D+, skewering its ridiculousness, beginning her review with the never-encouraging phrase ""massive illogic abounds."
Curiosity factor: I like shitty action movies, especially if there's some sort of vaguely interesting twist. Crank, starring Jason Statham, provided some of the most entertaining moments I had at the movies last year: Statham is poisoned at the beginning of the film, and he must keep his adrenaline up throughout the 90 minutes of real-time action, or he'll die. (See it, it's awesome.) Going into Hitman, I'm not entirely sure what the twist is, other than that Olyphant is bald and has a barcode tattooed on his neck. And he's a hitman. That said, movies about hitmen are almost invariably worth watching, because there are cool scenes of super-clever kills and lots of shit blowing up in slow motion. (Picture John Cusack dripping poison from the floor above a sleeping victim in Grosse Point Blank.) Beck summed it up in one lyric: "Wishin' I was livin' like a hitman." Doesn't the 12-year-old in all of us wish we could? Other positive factors: I like Timothy Olyphant in Deadwood, plus Rogert Ebert gave Hitman a halfway decent review, saying "Hitman stands right on the threshold between video games and art. On the wrong side of the threshold, but still, give it credit."
The viewing experience: Yes, Hitman is the kind of movie that requires you to turn off your sense of reason completely. It's ridiculous in every way, but it never makes the mistake—unlike, say, the recent Jet Li movie War—of taking itself too seriously. The filmmakers are aware that they're basing a movie on a video game, and instead of trying to run from that, they embrace it. The results: Ridiculous montages of a young assassin being trained (the word "DISCIPLINE" hilariously projected at the front of a classroom) that are straight out of a cutscene, and lots of super-duper killing, daring escapes, and exploding heads.
And Hitman, to my great surprise, does all of this with a serious eye for style. French director Xavier Gens (and his totally Euro crew, as you'll see in the DVD extras) makes every scene look great; there isn't much tossed-off action. That, plus the intensely entertaining, practically nonstop action scenes, equal brainless fun. Also: Desmond from Lost and Teddy the pedophile from Prison Break!
But I'm getting ahead of myself: The plot is, as expected, both retarded and too complex for its own good, but it's also pretty easy to ignore. (Plus, an Interpol agent played by Dougray Scott does a pretty good job of catching you up on what the fuck is going on—an operation to make a bad guy look like the Russian president, a key to some church-house door, an inexplicable appearance by the CIA toward the end, the list goes on.)
Just go in knowing this: Olyphant—a.k.a. Agent 47, because the assassin school gives out numbers, not names—is being hunted by his own people, and he's got to a) find out why and b) kick some ass. This leads to several scenes involving Olyphant fighting fellow bald-headed, barcoded killers, including a terrific early one in a train in which they all agree to put down their guns and fight "with dignity"—with the heretofore unnoticed swords they all happen to be carrying in their jackets.
Of course, Hitman drags when the inevitable love interest shows up. Number 47 somehow manages to fight through years of repressing his feelings in order to save a woman who's been abused by the Russian president, or possibly by the guy who's posing as the Russian president. (It's difficult to tell, especially when she's walking around half-naked all the time.) She turns 47 into a hitman with a heart of gold, but at least the movie doesn't go too far: Instead of having sex with her when she straddles him, 47 drugs her and goes off to do some more killing. You've gotta admire his sense of priority.
One more thing: I can't get through writing about this movie without bringing up the same crazy plot hole that Tasha mentioned in her review. A key to the plot involves the Russian president being shot in public—killed by 47, but made to look only injured—so his double can take over. The question: Why not kill the president in private and just let the double take over quietly? Oh, because then there's no movie. Okay.
Score: 90.43% I don't regret much of the time I spent watching Hitman, and that's how we'll be scoring I Watched This On Purpose, as a fraction expressing the number of minutes throughout the total length of the movie that the viewer wasn't thinking "I'm wasting my life." In this case, that'd be about 85 minutes out of 94. Not too shabby, for a cinematized videogame.