They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Sometimes, among the tarmac and gravel are a few films that should have stayed on the studio shelf. Such is the case with Shrapnel, now calling itself Killing Season. Considering the cast — Oscar winner Robert De Niro, Oscar nominee John Travolta — and its genre premise (a foreign combatant seeking vengeance against a NATO soldier for his “war crimes”), it shouldn’t be that bad. Granted, it’s a bit tired and hackneyed, but given the right action adventure spin, it could be a blast. Sadly, not even a bit of splatter or some lovely mountain scenery can keep this film from flopping like a flounder on the fishing docks. It’s dumb, repetitive, and truly only worthy of acting as asphalt for the devil’s own personal detour.
Travolta plays a Serbian vet whose anxious for some payback. You see, 20 years before, De Niro and the rest of his Western warriors came traipsing through the country, causing chaos and death wherever they wanted. Some of this horror came crashing into Emil Kovac’s life, and now he is out to make Benjamin Ford pay. Initially, he befriends the hermetic American man, offering to discuss their past in a preplanned lull into complacency. A few shots of liquor later and the setup is revealed. Fighting “like men” they agree to use bow and arrow for their own version of The Most Dangerous Game. Soon, it’s crappy cat and mouse as these two capture, torture, and escape each other, and then do it all over again… and again… and again.
Horrible casting aside (De Niro is too old and Travolta is just… odd), Killing Season fails because it is nothing more than two guys giving each other the bad accent ambush. The script, by Evan Daugherty (notorious for being part of Hollywood’s famed “Black List” of ambitious unproduced screenplays) offers little except setup and sadism, the occasional moral pronouncement failing as badly as Travolta’s Eastern Bloc brogue. While De Niro’s Southern drawl dances is and out, Vincent Vega sounds like he swallowed Boris Badenov with a helium chaser. In fact, while watching our actors play predator among the often stunning Appalachian backdrop, it’s clear that both are past their prime, in physicality and performance. (And what’s with that oddball beard, John? Did you lose a bet?)
For his part, Ghost Rider/Daredevil‘s Mark Steven Johnson appears to be channeling his distant past (let’s just call this Grumpiest Old Men and get it over with, shall we), even as he finds intriguing ways to highlight the rural landscapes. Cameras fly over waterfalls and ridges as our actors scowl and attempt to draw blood. There is a bit of gore here (Travolta gets a lesson in primeval cheek piercing) as well as some ridiculously staged fight scenes where a 59 year old proves he’s just as enfeebled as his 69 year old counterpart. Yet Johnson’s tone, which is serious to a fault, wants to find a bigger message in the mayhem. Whatever that meaning is, however, gets lost in the surrealism of De Niro and Travolta as action men.
Originally, John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October) was scheduled to sit behind the lens, reuniting Travolta with his Face/Off co-star Nicolas Cage. That the man who never says no to a paycheck passed on this project says a lot about his faith in the final result (or his proposed director’s criminal problems). Killing Season has direct to DVD written all over it. Like the concrete making up Satan’s boulevard of broken dreams, this is a well meaning mess made even sloppier by clueless creative decisions.