Upon initially learning about Killing Season, I’ll admit I was a little confused as to why a movie pitting Robert De Niro against John Travolta was getting such a limited release, but after watching Killing Season, I completely understand. Directed by Daredevil/Ghost Rider helmer Mark Steven Johnson and penned by Snow White and the Huntsman‘s Evan Daugherty, what should have been an epic battle amounts to nothing but a few brutal torture scenes and a lazy game of cat and mouse. Plus, John Travolta as an ex-Serbian militant with a heavy accent? Um, OK, I guess he kind of pulled it off, but the whole time I couldn’t help scratching my head at the distracting casting. Luckily, De Niro isn’t forced into a silly accent himself, otherwise we might have had an unintentional comedy on our hands.
Benjamin Ford (Robert De Niro) is a former American solder and Bosnian war veteran who now lives in a secluded cabin hidden deep in the Rocky Mountains. Emil Kovac (John Travolta) is a former Serbian solder from the very same war, who cannot let go of a particular run in he had with Ford. Finally acting on his insane obsession years later, Kovac uncovers Ford’s location, and decides it’s time to settle the score. After befriending Ford, Kovac reveals his intentions while out hunting with Ford, beginning a struggle for survival while Kovac hunts his most elusive prey ever. But can Ford turn the tables on his Serbian hunter and make it out alive?
Let’s start with the positives. Coming from a true horror fan, I absolutely have to give Mark Steven Johnson a solid fist bump for reducing me into a wincing little wimp during most torture scenes. The acts that both De Niro and Travolta are forced to carry out are scarily realistic and horrifyingly brutal, as these two men beat the ever-loving pulp out of each other. Seriously, I’m feeling uneasy at this very moment just recalling De Niro’s arrow wound and the unspeakable thing Travolta makes him do to his open wound. Trust me, it takes a lot to irk me, but Killing Season had me feeling an uneasiness most horror movies don’t even achieve, all thanks to near perfect effects work and the devious minds who held nothing back visually.
It’s a shame that the whole chase was terribly anti-climactic though, because the ghastly build-ups were lost throughout an almost cartoonish exchange between De Niro and Travolta. In an ever changing battle of military wits, the upper-hand flip-flopped back and forth at the drop of the hat, as neither character capitalized on blunders the other made. Killing Season‘s story emphasizes our soldier’s struggles to deal with the harsh realities of war, as Kovac’s character demands a confession from Ford before he can kill him, but for a man so content on revenge, his continual slip-ups should have led to a heightened need to finish his job. Ford’s attempts at trickery were straight out of Looney Tunes though, which makes Kovac’s military background even more questionable. Really? The old “play dead and strike their head with a rock” trick is a viable military tactic? When you’re facing Travolta’s Emil Kovac, apparently so.
These wacky dynamics absolutely drain Killing Season of all atmospheric tension, missing out on what should absolutely be the most dangerous of games. You never really feel a sense of despair or uncertainty, there’s no questioning which character will finish the job, there’s no thrill in the chase, and you certainly won’t be kept on the edge of your seat. The formula is far to simple for any true surprises, as audiences simply wait for Kovac to start jawing away and for Ford to pull off some miracle tide-turner. Again, for a film marketed as a dramatic thriller, it often became unnecessarily comical and a tad bit ridiculous. Even with Robert De Niro and John Travolta battling their hardest, poor planning ruins any momentum the two are able to build.
As an added point of commentary, I’ve been reading a lot of rants from Bosnian war buffs absolutely tearing Daugherty’s scrip to shreds, citing historical inaccuracies and misinterpretations. I can’t say for certain how valid these complaints are because I probably slept through this lesson in History class, but if this butchering is in fact true, I can’t think native viewers are going to be too thrilled about Killing Season.
It’s a shame to see such an epic showdown go to waste, but Killing Season doesn’t exactly know what kind of film it truly wants to be. Packed with thematic material about post-war living and the realities faced in the heat of battle, Daugherty’s hunter scenario intensity doesn’t mirror the necessary levels such a backstory warrants, and the whole project comes off with a sillier tone than intended. Hell, it almost becomes slapstick at points, as our two main characters fight a witless fight full of questionable ignorance and noticeable weak points. Ford and Kovac may have been crack shots, but Mark Steven Johnson’s film unfortunately misses the target completely.