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Hard Kill (2020) Review

Hard Kill was directed by Matt Eskandari (Trauma Center, Survive the Night), written by Chris LaMont (My Apocalypse, Soul Mates) and Joe Russo (The Au Pair Nightmare, Midnight Clear), and stars Jesse Metcalfe (Escape Plan 2: Hades, Fortress: Sniper’s Eye), Natalie Eva Marie (WWE wrestling, Phoenix), Swen Temmel (Bandit, Survive the Game), Sergio Rizzuto (Drowning, Freedom’s Path), Texas Battle (Blowback, Hellblazers), Bruce Willis (Paradise City, Detective Knight: Redemption), Jon Galanis (Acts of Violence, Arsenal), and Lala Kent (Out of Death, Vanderpump Rules). It’s about a team of mercenaries protecting a billionaire CEO and his pet project from a terrorist sect’s nefarious hands.

The Plot: Some low-budget movies are cut by the double-edged sword of having great ideas which are unfortunately kept from being realized for various reasons. LaMont and Russo had an unoriginal idea whose convoluted conception stalls an already bland story.

Wanting to change the world with a rare technology isn’t a rare starting point for a feature, and Hard Kill is one of those that use it. “Project 725” has just been stolen from Chalmers (Willis), who uses Fox (Battle) to hire Miller (Metcalfe) to protect him while he attempts a bargain at a vacant factory to get it back from a terrorist called The Pardoner (Rizzuto). Normally these kinds of deals that go awry are but brief moments in a movie, but the screenwriters don’t have the imagination to take the plot anywhere, as Hard Kill is solely about this predicament, elaborating that Chalmers has the activation code.

Partnership is required to ensure Chalmers’ safety, so Miller recruits Sasha (Marie), Dash (Temmel), and Harrison (Galanis) to join him. The specifics of what they’ve been charged with protecting are danced around for a while, and when the abilities of 725 are spoken on, nothing becomes any clearer. When the buy goes down, the Pardoner has an unexpected (for the characters) bargaining chip: Chalmers’s daughter Eva (Kent). From this point, Hard Kill switches between dawdling and technobabble to standard betrayals and shootouts.

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No creativity resides amidst these scenes, as Eskandari is forced to work through clichéd setups and tropes to get to a thin story which lacks specificity about its main MacGuffin. It’s hard (pun intended) to understand.

The Characters: Chances require effort, which the writing duo was unwilling to take, as the movie only has bog standard 101 archetypes and a cast unable to sufficiently conjure up enough charm or pathos to set them apart.

Not so much as a single personality is seen between the four mercenaries. Sure, there’s a military connection between them, but even this is never given any degree of development. Where did they deploy? What branch were they in? None of this is answered or even brought up. As a result, the team is reduced to barely one-note characters with Miller as the psychologically and physically damaged vet, Sasha as the badass female, Dash as the motormouth, and Harrison as the fodder.

During his time in the war, Miller fought the Pardoner and was wounded. It’s unknown what exactly caused his positions to switch from country servant to wanting to bring a new world order by using Project 725 to reset the world’s technological advances back by about 100 years, thereby forcing the strongest to survive, but that’s his motive. Hard Kill’s writers were clearly trying for bombastic characters, but they failed so hard that it feels unintentionally silly.

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Eva worked for her father’s tech company and developed 725, which she wanted to use to change the world for the better instead of the worst, but Chalmers was skeptical about it and wanted to keep it a secret. This spurred her to hand it over to the Pardoner for some reason, and Chalmers is essentially just another regretful father who wants to fight for his kid back and happens to be a billionaire.

Calling these participants “characters” is a stretch, and the movie doesn’t have arcs, so they stay in the dubious position for the length of Hard Kill. The cast doesn’t help matters, though Metcalfe is clearly trying and there are a couple of brief flashes of the old Willis.

The Action: Eskandari stuffs the feature full of action after half an hour of shaky setup, but quantity doesn’t guarantee quality. While there’s plenty of action, most of it is too mild and too extended to engage.

Under Miller’s command, the team holds their own during the first wave, which is where the movie becomes something of a siege picture as the Pardoner’s scouts walk around (presumably with blinders on so as to not see the protagonists) and get stabbed. Eva gets used as bait, and the bad guys predictably offer “one last chance” to hand over Chalmers or get swarmed. While the movie lingers on the antagonist’s monologues in the downtime, the mercs don’t even bother to get prepared.

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Dullness and repetition soon take hold of Hard Kill, as several teams of armed men kick down shoddy barricades and immediately get gunned down by the heroes. It takes a while before the goons make a dent in the defence, as Miller and company simply follow the men (the warehouse walls are 50% windows) around to each entrance and take them down. When the Pardoner’s men do get in, we’re only offered stop-and-pop shooting as both parties repeatedly spray bullets that do no damage due to CGI impacts on the environment until they run out of ammo.

Defiantly avoiding an original action beat, the movie eventually allows Chalmers to fall into the Pardoner’s hands, forcing what’s left of the team by this point to get crafty and stop Project 725 before it starts because, of course, the bad guy threatens the life of the daughter for the code. Those looking for lots of shootouts, fistfights, and heroic deaths will get what they came for, just don’t expect any of it to rise above a subpar level.

The Technics: Like many a latter-day action star movie, Hard Kill was shot quickly in a mere ten days, and on the cheap. With these constraints, Eskandari’s hand must have been forced, as the movie doesn’t reach his previous (and post) level of slickness.

Staying small was a necessity given the crunched time, but the level of variety in locations and set dressing is pitiable. Normally these kinds of movies will try to hide the fact that they take place in a warehouse, factory, dock, or whatever, but Hard Kill doesn’t even try. Every room looks the same and facilitates action the same, barring one clock tower. If reverberating sound is annoying to you, good luck getting through this, as just about every line bounces around, doubling the dumb dialogue.

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Eskandari’s direction skills occasionally net an interesting shot, but the look of the movie continues to be its major weakness, as Bryan Koss’s (Hot Seat, Relish) camerawork is full of generic handheld action and static close-ups. Digital blood doesn’t help, but there are a few practical bullet impacts and blood squibs. And some gunshots have a weird yellow flash that takes up the whole screen. Post-production must have been equally rushed. The only construction element that works well is Rhyan D’Errico’s (Frank and Penelope, Happy Hunting) synth-toned score – especially the theme – which is decently memorable.

While Hard Kill is never terrible enough to quit watching thanks to a barrage of action, commitment from Metcalfe, and the few times Willis is lucid; its story is too cliché, its MacGuffin is unexplained, and its look is too flat to make any of it memorable.

Hard Kill is available on Blu-ray, DVD and on Digital platforms including Netflix via Vertical Entertainment. And if you’re trying hard to kill time, FilmTagger can suggest some more films for you to watch,

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