According to Hollywood, there is no character as interesting, sexy, mysterious or cinematic as a professional assassin. An incredibly large percentage of action movies feature some sort of tortured loner who has a certain penchant and skill for killing, and audiences love it. From James Bond to John Wick, Atomic Blonde and Killing Eve, these colorful, enigmatic and exciting anti-heroes have been a Hollywood mainstay, their allure seemingly never dulled.
The newest entry in the hitman genre, The Virtuoso, directed by Nick Stagliano and written by James C. Wolf, bills itself as an action and crime thriller, but not only does it fail to live up to those expectations or the expectations of any or all of the hitman movies that precede it, it sadly fails to even be coherent, let alone exciting.
The Virtuoso stars Anson Mount as The Virtuoso (that’s his character’s name), a hitman who narrates the entire film in third person. He gets his assignments from The Mentor (again, the actual character name), played by Anthony Hopkins, whose only significant moment in the film is a monologue about how he participated in a mass murder of civilians when he was a soldier in Vietnam. While the speech is intended to prove a point about collateral damage, it plays as a heavy-handed concession to give an Oscar-winner a meaty moment. The Mentor sends The Virtuoso out on one last job (of course), which ends up being much more difficult than anticipated, as the target is another hitman and the clues for who it is are sparse.
This film betrays every single expectation you have for it. Where it’s not clumsy, it’s dull and, most of the time, it’s both. The little action it has is laughable, including a moment in an early scene were a mother playing soccer on the sidewalk with her young son gets immolated in a fireball when the hitman’s target slams into a parked RV. You do expect tropes and clichés in this type of movie, but The Virtuoso lazily ticks them off, one by one, like the mysterious loner who lives in a cabin in the woods, the out-of-the-way motel and diner serving as the settings for the climactic showdown (at night, in the cold), and the boss who literally sits in a darkened room, wearing sunglasses, giving cryptic orders over the phone.
If only this film were a spoof, but, sadly, it’s not. It takes itself incredibly seriously, as does Mount, who delivers a performance that is odd and bizarre. Mount is so successful in creating a character who is incapable of emoting, it comes off as robotic and genuinely baffling, mostly because we have been given no explanation for the emotional off switch. There is a moment when his character actually practices facial expressions in the mirror, as if he’s trying to be a human, and I was half-expecting him to peel off his skin and reveal himself to be an android. It’s difficult to evaluate Mount’s acting skills, since he is burdened with dialogue that is stilted and mono-syllabic, as if it had been written in English, translated to a different language and then back to English again. There is absolutely nothing interesting about him, except for his perfectly coiffed hair and fashionable turtleneck.
But by far the worst sin of all is the script, an overly simplistic and unimaginative exercise in banality, with no tension, mystery, or excitement anywhere to be found. The voiceover narration, which literally talks the audience through every scene of the film, actually works against itself, replacing the need for a main character who shows any emotion or motivation on screen. What it leaves us with is a robotic weirdo who has trouble speaking in complete sentences. This is as far from James Bond as you can possibly imagine.
There are a few other actors in The Virtuoso, such as Abbie Cornish, Eddie Marsan and David Morse, but to say they are wasted is an understatement. Although Cornish does have a significant role, she is reduced to being the sexy waitress, and her ability to express genuine emotion only serves to diminish our hero even more in comparison.
The Virtuoso is truly death by a thousand cuts, each expectation of a thrilling, exciting hitman movie washed away by a dull, inane plot, stilted, insufferable dialogue and a central performance with less energy than a Terrence Malick film. Ironically, the only thing The Virtuoso successfully kills is his own movie
Review originally posted on AwardsWatch.