Katia (Hannah Ware), perfect skin slick and gleaming, wades topless into the rooftop pool of Singapore's opulent Park Royal hotel, its water cobalt against the night sky. The next morning a band of freelance assassins will muscle their way into her hotel room, silenced pistols drawn, occasioning a bit of frenzied hand-to-hand combat – an action scene to invigorate the proceedings. But for now, in this moment of poolside repose, we are treated to a rarer luxury: pointless beauty. Hitman: Agent 47 is a $30-million reboot of a much-maligned adaptation of a mildly popular video game franchise. What business does it have being sumptuous? Perhaps more saliently: why are other blockbusters not?
Hitman boasts some of the most exquisite urban landscape photography I've seen in a studio film: Metropolitan skylines radiant in the predawn, aerial views of high rises and motorways that could be ads by the local tourism board. The film features Ware alongside Zachary Quinto and Rupert Friend, but the stars are plainly behind the lens. Who to praise? The cinematographer Ottar Gudnason? Or second unit DP Duane Manwiller, who worked on Blackhat and Miami Vice? (There's a great deal of Michael Mann in the film's luminous digital vistas.) Compliments, too, are in order for Simon Daniel, the location manager. Scarcely have Berlin and Singapore been put to such interesting use by an international production.
Unfortunately this taste for extravagance and originality does not extend to the pen. Skip Woods and Michael Finch, the screenwriters, plunder the genre for cliché, assembling – with the effort of what I imagine was a solid afternoon – the movie's familiar spy-thriller frame. There are genetically engineered superhitmen, of which Agent 47 (Friend) is an ambiguously malevolent exemplar, an organization that oversees them, and a competing faction that aspires to either destroy the superhitmen or replicate an army of their own (I was never quite clear which). Allegiances change frequently and confusingly. Many henchmen are indifferently dispatched. Meanwhile, as the dull machinations continue, director Aleksander Bach and his team of craftsmen blissfully trick out the surface.
Splendour isn't a quality you'd expect of a Hitman movie. But here's a stealth stroll through the hypermodern Changi International Airport that cites Le Samouraï, of all things, and there's a secret meeting on the walkway of the Supertree Grove in Singapore, with its striking greenery. Here's Quinto, handsome and dapper, traipsing around Berlin in a tailored grey suit – even the wardrobe is lavish. (Agent 47's own black suit is the subject of the film's most amusing one-liner. The killer scours a closet before hanging up his jacket. "Bombs?" asks Katia. "Moths," he replies dryly. "Italian wool: They love it.") Of course, this isn't exactly Skyfall, with its painterly globetrotting; nobody has an eye like cinematographer Roger Deakins. But in the realm of the vapid any serious aspiration toward beauty ought to be savoured for it.
It's tempting to think Hitman undermines any beauty it musters with its habit of ridiculousness. This is an outrageous film, to be sure – there's 10-mile headshots and skyscraper-dimming electrocutions, mysterious torture serums and asthma puffers jerry-rigged as bombs. And yet the friction between stateliness and lunacy is more intriguing than, say, the line-toeing mediocrity of a second-rate Marvel movie. I suppose it isn't fashionable to be so strange – or to be strange in just this way. But I'll always prefer an identity that risks embarrassment to a riskless nonentity.