Two men, gladiators in an arena, fighting to the death. It’s a story as old as empire. Which also means it has been put to film more times than can be counted. Killing Season was billed as the first on-screen pairing of Robert De Niro and John Travolta, a pair of Hollywood legends. Whether they’re on equal footing is not worth debate. But, if these two heavyweights were going to be in a film together, it would have been nice if it was a film that was not instantly forgettable.
Robert De Niro plays Benjamin Ford, a former army colonel who saw action in the American peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in 1995. Travolta is Emil Kovac, a former Serbian soldier who participated in genocide, and who was shot by Ford in cold blood for his crimes, but managed to survive. Now, eighteen years later, Kovac has come to America, seeking out Ford so he can exact his revenge.
Conveniently for Kovac, Ford has become a bit of a shut-in since his tour in the Balkans. He’s carrying a fair amount of baggage owing to what he saw during the war, and has managed to alienate seemingly everyone he knows. He spends his days waiting for his dotage to take hold in an isolated mountain cabin, indulging his love of stalking animals and shooting them — with a camera — because Ford is a man of peace now, and director Mark Steven Johnson wants to make that clear.
Kovac shows up on Ford’s property posing as a hunter looking to bag an elk, and then lug it all the way back to Serbia, or some such nonsense. How Kovac and Ford meet each other is beside the point. Early on this film promised a confrontation between two bitter enemies. All one wants is to see the shooting start. There’s a bit of exposition before things begin to move, and that’s okay. Or it would be, if that meant we didn’t have to listen to Travolta deliver lines. His attempt at a generic Eastern European accent is an abject failure. Before seeing Killing Season, I never thought it was possible to put on an accent so poorly. This isn’t Don Cheadle stumbling through an English accent in the Ocean films, or, good lord, Dick Van Dyke butchering a Cockney lilt in Mary Poppins. Oh, no. Those are embarrassingly bad, but they were at least attempts at a real accent. What comes out of Travolta’s gob is a mishmash of rolled r’s, missing articles, glottal stops, and pharyngeal hacking, none of which he does well. It’s impossible to take the performance at all seriously.
But even De Niro wasn’t immune to the accent bug in this one. Not all that often, but occasionally, De Niro lets slip a word in what could be taken as an Appalachian accent, but it’s hard to tell since his native New Yorker is still very intact. It’s nonsensical, but easy to miss with Travolta doing most of the vocal slaughter.
Okay, so neither of the two leads can talk. This film is supposed to be about two men in the woods hunting each other down. Did Johnson at least get that right? No! He didn’t. The sequences where Ford and Kovac hunt each other are too short. Instead, there are sequences of film fleshed out by stomach-churning images of bodily injury. It doesn’t dominate the film like it would a horror flick, but I was a bit surprised to see action and tension replaced by so much gore. There was an opportunity to craft a film with real dramatic pacing, but every single chance that presented itself was missed. Killing Season would have been better served being a bit more First Blood and less Saw.
While it was possible for a better movie to have been made, it’s hard to say whether being better would have made this movie any more memorable. Killing Season reminded me of long stretches on the highway where, when driving, one looks up and realizes they can’t remember anything that happened in the last fifteen miles. Who was doing the driving? Who was paying attention? I felt like I had just watched a movie, but I can’t be entirely sure. Alien: Resurrection is a better film than Killing Season, because at least that wretched piece of shit left an impression on me more substantial than Travolta’s mangled accent.