Cinemalphabet: K is for Killers (2010)
Of Katherine Heigl’s box office currency in Killers–the disappointing rom-com action flick, which bombed in theaters last summer – Time magazine’s Richard Corliss said:
[Katherine Heigl] has come close to the traditional definition of a star: someone who will get people to pay to see her in bad movies.
The article goes on to deconstruct why the derivative spy rom-com didn’t performing up to expectations, which weren’t particularly high to begin with. While some exploration of seasonal box office precedent–early June is the largely the time for gross-out comedies–is legitimate, Killers misses the mark for one specific reason: the filmmakers’ failure to understand what constitutes successful use of the “So I married a secret agent” trope. The problem stems from casting Heigl as yet another hapless single gal looking for a man to complete her. Capitalizing on the audience’s appreciation of Heigl’s comedic capabilities is smart, but essentially transplanting any number of her previous screen incarnations into this film is not.
In 1994’s True Lies–a stellar execution of the trope–James Cameron (I know. I know. Look, trying to discuss action films without Cameron is like trying to make chicken salad without chicken.) selected Jamie Lee Curtis–in a shrewd bit of against-type casting–for the role of hapless suburban housewife married to (in an even more brilliant stroking casting genius)–the Governator himself. Known to audiences as a scream queen in films such as Halloween and as eye candy in Trading Places, Curtis wore prim outfits and shrank her dynamic screen persona to inhabit the role of Helen Tasker. Curtis’ performance is effective because the audience is distracted by the modest outfits and our normally empowered Curtis skittering around like a mouse, which is exactly how it should be. Moreover, since it’s Cameron and generally his female leads get to kick some ass, the audience expects Curtis’ makeover to be temporary and for the slicked back hair and butt kicking to make an appearance somewhere in the third act. And when it does: we exhale.
In contrast, Heigl’s screen persona is not positioned the same way as Curtis’, thus there is little surprise–a necessary ingredient of the trope–when it turns out the man who completes her also likes to kill people when assigned to do so by his employer. When viewed through the lens of Heigl’s other onscreen relationships, how is an assassin any more unfortunate than a pot smoking slacker? Is Spencer, the assassin played by Ashton Kutcher, any more a disappointment than Ben Stone, the slacker played by Seth Rogen in Knocked Up? In order to preserve the suspension of disbelief necessary for successful execution of the trope, the audience must believe the female lead capable of making reasonably informed life choices, and her partner must be superior in his ability keep his secret agent status, well, secret. As written, neither lead proves credible and both are too silly–even for a rom-com–for the story they are asked to tell.
Another element that not only spells disaster for Killers, but is also offensive to boot, is the notion women are so relationship-hungry that even a man with a morally problematic job is framed as a “great catch.” In True Lies, when Helen Tasker discovers her husband’s true identity, her first instinct isn’t to seek out advice from her intrusive parents, but rather to give her hubby the business end of a telephone. I do not advocate violence under ANY circumstance, nor do I find its use in service of a laugh appropriate either. That said, I do believe there has to be a legitimate way of exploring the discovery of a partner’s 00 status that is more nuanced than standard rom-com tropes while decidedly less problematic than cracking someone upside the head with a telephone.
The final element of the “So I married a secret agent” trope usually involves the clued-in spouse joining forces with the secret agent in order to thwart a crisis mentioned in passing at some early point of the film. Unfortunately–and I’m won’t spoil Killers–the filmmakers’ choice of Heigl clearly is a detriment here. Heigl’s onscreen persona generally does not scream “agency,” so it was a little difficult to shift gears when asked by the filmmakers frame her this way.
Killers strives for humor, playfulness and action and fails on all counts. As a comedy it has very little humor. As a romance the leads–while very pleasing to the eye–have virtually no chemistry. As an action film, the characters engage in way too much chow chow. More importantly, a film starring an extremely likable female lead should provide an opportunity to showcase her talents in ways we haven’t seen before. If filmmakers insist on revisiting the same themes again and again, is it too much to ask for them to surprise the audience with a fresh take or at least a far less problematic take?