Despite strong performances from Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman, Wild Target ultimately feels too small for its starry cast
Director: Jonathan Lynn
Starring: Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt, Rupert Grint, Rupert Everett
Mixing the macabre with the mundane and larky slapstick with dry understatement, this uneven black comedy feels creakily old-fashioned and very British. Bill Nighy's poker-faced protagonist, an emotionally repressed hitman with fastidious manners, certainly fits the familiar screen caricature of an uptight English gentleman. But in fact, Wild Target is a faithful remake of a French farce from 1993, Cible Emouvante, which starred the impeccably proper Jean Rochefort.
Nighy plays a suave freelance assassin, the best in the business, yet clearly dissatisfied with his solitary existence as he turns 55. A full-blown midlife crisis looms when he is hired to kill Emily Blunt's wily young con artist as payback for her selling a million-pound Rembrandt forgery to Rupert Everett's crooked London art collector.
When his attempted hit goes wrong, Nighy's lovesick killer suffers a rare crisis of conscience, switches sides and agrees to shield Blunt from the replacement hitmen who are now pursuing both of them. Picking up Grint, an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire, they confront Everett's henchman in a luxury hotel. They then flee London for Nighy's remote country residence, where gun battles give way to romantic intrigue and dysfunctional family friction.
The director, Jonathan Lynn, is best known for co-writing the celebrated BBC TV classic Yes, Minister, later stepping behind the camera on a string of mostly forgettable Hollywood features, including the Bruce Willis hitman comedy The Whole Nine Yards. The tenor of Wild Target is more muted and European, although its sitcom-like dimensions sometimes feel too small for such a starry cast.
Lumbered with a thankless and implausible role, Grint seems even more colourless here than in the Harry Potter films. But Blunt does her best to flesh out her thinly written young heroine, despite acting like a master criminal one minute and a neurotic airhead the next. Meanwhile, Everett opts for hammy overstatement as the chief villain, with cartoonish results.
Martin Freeman, best known for his role in The Office, manages to do more with less as a ruthless young rival in the hitman game, a sinister chill lurking just behind his neat haircut and toothy smile. Eileen Atkins is also good fun as Nighy's overbearing mother, the psycho-killer equivalent of a pushy show business parent, who keeps a scrapbook of his bloodthirsty work and dreams of a grandson to "carry on the family business". Hardly subtle, but pleasingly gothic.
A critical and commercial flop in Europe and America, Wild Target is by no means a laugh-out-loud masterpiece, but it still delivers plenty of offbeat charm. The script creaks and clunks in places, but at least the dark and cheerfully amoral tone is a refreshing alternative to the infantile candy-floss optimism of Richard Curtis or the boorish low-life voyeurism of Guy Ritchie. Movie buffs may also enjoy the fleeting homages to The Italian Job, The French Connection and Psycho. If nothing else, Nighy's soulfully sad comic persona is always good value. Even when he misses the target.