When the role calls for “cold-blooded Serbian war criminal,” who wouldn’t think, “John Travolta”? That preposterous casting stunt provides the main source of eccentricity in Killing Season, an alternately bland and over-determined thriller about two men settling an old war score in the Appalachian woods. Haunted by what he saw in the Balkans—and apparently so lost in his thoughts he sometimes forgets his Southern accent—retired American colonel Robert De Niro spends his days popping aspirin and chopping logs. He claims to be too busy to attend his grandson’s baptism, but it’s not until a figure from his past resurfaces that he realizes just how tied up he’ll be. Travolta poses as a Bosnian to ingratiate himself into his mark’s isolated forest cabin, fixing De Niro’s Land Rover and offering him Jaeger shots. The duo bonds, though the accord is short-lived. The next day Travolta reveals his true purpose: to fight De Niro to the death, getting him to confess his sins in the process.
To put it mildly, neither of the leads has the physique for such a Darwinian showdown, and one of the frustrations of Killing Season is the way Evan Daugherty’s screenplay demands near-invincibility. Gaping wounds barely slow these guys down from scene to scene. How the once-attached John McTiernan might have grounded this scenario is worth pondering, yet all that remains is high-concept brutality. The two men hunt each other with bows and arrows, attempting torture methods that seem conceived for topical resonance (like waterboarding via lemonade mixed with iodized salt) but play as better suited to an installment of Saw.
Killing Season proceeds to kill time, with the pair turning the tables on each other again and again. While it’s easy to admire the film’s economy, the thudding moralism—violence begets violence, and both men are guilty in their own ways—would in a prior era have sent Anthony Mann scrambling for a rewrite. Nor can director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, Ghost Rider) match the formal elegance William Friedkin brought to The Hunted (with which Killing Season shares a yen for Johnny Cash). Short of the fatally benign Travolta delivering lines like “Don’t worry! The calf muscle is very strong!” in a thick Serbian accent, the movie is also completely devoid of any tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of the absurdity its central mano-a-mano. With casting this unconvincing, no one is watching to get a lesson in the horrors of war.