Snarky's Cinemachine: Killers is Dead on Arrival



Of Katherine Heigl's box office currency in Killers–the disappointing rom-com action flick now bombing in a theater near you–Time magazine's Richard Corliss had this to say:

[Katherine Heigl] has come close to the traditional definition of a star: someone who will get people to pay to see her in bad movies.

The article goes on to deconstruct why the derivative spy rom-com isn't performing up to expectations, which weren't particularly high to begin with. While some exploration of seasonal box office precedent–early June is the largely the time for gross-out comedies–is legitimate, Killers misses the mark for one specific reason: the filmmakers' failure to understand what constitutes successful use of the "So I married a secret agent" trope.

The problem stems from casting Heigl as yet another hapless single gal looking for a man to complete her. Capitalizing on the audience's appreciation of Heigl's comedic capabilities is smart, but essentially transplanting any number of her previous screen incarnations into this film is not. In 1994's True Lies–a stellar execution of the trope–James Cameron (I know. I know. Look, trying to discuss action films without Cameron is like trying to make chicken salad without chicken.) selected Jamie Lee Curtis–in a shrewd bit of against-type casting–for the role of hapless suburban housewife married to (in an even more brilliant stroking casting genius)–the Governator himself. Known to audiences as a scream queen in films such as Halloween and as eye candy in Trading Places, Curtis wore prim outfits and shrank her dynamic screen persona to inhabit the role of Helen Tasker. Curtis' performance is effective because the audience is distracted by the modest outfits and our normally empowered Curtis skittering around like a mouse, which is exactly how it should be. Moreover, since it's Cameron and generally his female leads get to kick some ass, the audience expects Curtis' makeover to be temporary and for the slicked back hair and butt kicking to make an appearance somewhere in the third act. And when it does: we exhale.

In contrast, Heigl's screen persona is not positioned the same way as Curtis', thus there is little surprise–a necessary ingredient of the trope–when it turns out the man who completes her also likes to kill people when assigned to do so by his employer. When viewed through the lens of Heigl's other onscreen relationships, how is an assassin any more unfortunate than a pot smoking slacker? Is Spencer, the assassin played by Ashton Kutcher, any more a disappointment than Ben Stone, the slacker played by Seth Rogen in Knocked Up? In order to preserve the suspension of disbelief necessary for successful execution of the trope, the audience must believe the female lead capable of making reasonably informed life choices, and her partner must be superior in his ability keep his secret agent status, well, secret. As written, neither lead proves credible and both are too silly–even for a rom-com–for the story they are asked to tell.

Another element that not only spells disaster for Killers, but is also offensive to boot, is the notion women are so relationship-hungry that even a man with a morally problematic job is framed as a "great catch." In True Lies, when Helen Tasker discovers her husband's true identity, her first instinct isn't to seek out advice from her intrusive parents, but rather to give her hubby the business end of a telephone. I do not advocate violence under ANY circumstance, nor do I find its use in service of a laugh appropriate either. That said, I do believe there has to be a legitimate way of exploring the discovery of a partner's 00 status that is more nuanced than standard rom-com tropes while decidedly less problematic than cracking someone upside the head with a telephone.

The final element of the "So I married a secret agent" trope usually involves the clued-in spouse joining forces with the secret agent in order to thwart a crisis mentioned in passing at some early point of the film. Unfortunately–and I'm won't spoil Killers–the filmmakers' choice of Heigl clearly is a detriment here. Heigl's onscreen persona generally does not scream "agency," so it was a little difficult to shift gears when asked by the filmmakers frame her this way.

Killers strives for humor, playfulness and action and fails on all counts. As a comedy it has very little humor. As a romance the leads–while very pleasing to the eye–have virtually no chemistry. As an action film, the characters engage in way too much chow chow. More importantly, a film starring an extremely likable female lead should provide an opportunity to showcase her talents in ways we haven't seen before. If filmmakers insist on revisiting the same themes again and again, is it too much to ask for them to surprise the audience with a fresh take or at least a far less problematic take?

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Comments

12 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Goofy casting...

Yeah, the casting seems really confusing. Spies are generally badasses, and neither fit that bill - maybe Heigl could, but apparently not here. Kutcher particularly seems odd - sure, he's cute, and I liked him in That 70's Show, but he's not really a movie star, and he's decidedly goofy. I don't see how this was ever going to work unless it were a straight-up spoof.

A spoof would have been a

A spoof would have been a great direction for the film, considering the inspired casting of Tom Selleck and Catherine O'hara. I would have found the whole film far more enjoyable and probably less problematic, if I hadn't been asked to take it seriously as an rom-com spy action flick.

I am usually gracious about films I don't enough, but this thing's ten shades of awful.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

KH better as the spy

When I first saw the preview for this film, I said something similar to the first comment here -- what might have worked would have been if Katherine Heigl played the spy instead. It would have been more believable to see KH as a badass spy than Ashton Kutcher, honestly. And in the right hands (which is certainly a major consideration), that version could have been fun and interesting -- though not particularly unusual, since what I know of the tv show Chuck is that it's about roughly the same idea. In any case, though, the idea of this person as being an assassin rather than a spy is also troubling to me; I realize spies probably kill people, but if the job is specifically to kill, this is seriously problematic in a rom-com, no?

Absolutely! The last point

Absolutely! The last point is especially important. While I wanted to acknowledge the ways in which this trope is really problematic as it relates to real issues of DV and the impact of living with a trained assassin as a spouse, it seemed inappropriate to connect the concepts, given it deserves far more nuance than a humble review of a box office bomb would allow. This is not to say it wasn't on my radar, but I didn't feel I could give that element proper treatment.

That said, it's entirely problematic to see this trope situated in a rom-com.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Less rom-com, more sit-com?

This sounds like a swiss-army knife of a film, trying to be too many things and not being particularly good at any of them.

Yes! A swiss-army knife with

Yes! A swiss-army knife with unusable tools.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Killers vs. Knight and Day

I'm curious how this film will compare to 'Knight and Day' with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz.
I know both films are marketed as spy rom-coms with the badass spy and the soon-to-be-badass blonde drawn into his world of intrigue. Just looking at the cast alone 'Knight and Day' is way above 'Killers' with two action hero veterans and they have a more dynamic acting CV then that of Kutcher and Heigl. It could be just as formulaic and problematic, but it may reveal the power of casting in such a filmatic trope.

Mostly, I love the conversations/blogs of Snarkysmachine and RMJ and thought I would throw that observation out for you two to consider.

Knight and Day has been on

Knight and Day has been on my radar for a while, but I've been hesitate since I'm not much of a fan of either lead. I prefer Cruise to Diaz, but could easily do without either. Generally, my feelings about actors is not informed by their off screen behavior unless it's really problematic. I don't mind not liking an actor's off screen persona - provided it's not problematic - but digging their on screen one. I find both Cam and Tom to have really intrusive screen presence, despite being very generous actors (based on published reports). A little bit of both goes a long way for me, but nevertheless, Knight and Day seems to be the film Killers was supposed to be but suffered to due being filmed at a TJ Maxx price point.

The trailer for Knight and Day looks rather dull, but I like what I'm seeing of Cruise's performance. He is so much more enjoyable (to me) in roles where he's not supposed to be likable (Vanilla Sky, Magnolia, Collateral) and hopefully, they are going for the vibe of those films.

As for Diaz. I realize it's not her doing, but her being positioned as a gal who's awesome because she betches, drinks beer, eats carbs and farts irks me to no end. Also don't think she's a very skilled actor.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Hold up...True Lies?

Just wanted to query the "stellar" reputation of True Lies and its gender relations. When Arnie figures out that his mousy wife is up to something, he manipulates her into attending a fake meeting with a mysterious man, which she perceives to be a life-threatening situation. He then forces her to perform a strip-tease, while she is secretly observed by cameras (a feat portrayed in the film as sexually liberating for our heroine). Subsequently, he kidnaps and imprisons her, where again she fears for her life. To put it bluntly, what kind of a dick is this guy? One of the only movies I've ever actually wanted to walk out of.

I didn't say it was a

I didn't say it was a stellar film, but a stellar execution of the trope, which is riddled with problematic elements. That said, your point is well taken.

Also, while I appreciate your passionate response, in the future please avoid using anatomical terms as insults re: "dick". Douchebag is the preferred nomenclature around these parts.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Sorry about the language -

Sorry about the language - you're quite right. Thanks for pulling me up!

Thank you for bringing the

Thank you for bringing the power dynamics of the Tasker marriage into the conversation. It was a very important point.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.