These days, a comic book adaptation is as ubiquitous in entertainment as westerns were in the silent film era and later. There’re the big releases like the upcoming MCU film The Marvels (2023) or DCEU film Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023), but there’re also smaller releases that folks may not have realized were adaptations at the time of their release. Films like Road to Perdition (2002), American Splendor (2003), or Ghost World (2001), for instance. The source material is so prolific and varied, that it makes for fertile ground to adapt. It’s also a great place for a long-time creator and actor to make their directorial debut, such is the case for actor/writer Kevin Grevioux, the creator of Underworld (2003) and I, Frankenstein (2014), who took on directorial responsibilities for the adaptation of his comic, King of Killers. More than a month since its theatrical release, King of Killers comes home with a single featurette that explains and explores the approach of the film. However, what should be a clear-and-cut action extravaganza finds itself weighed down by the insertion of several emotional stakes whose compounded efforts make the journey more of a slog than a driving force.
A year after tragedy strikes forcing a reevaluation of priorities, former U.S.-sanctioned assassin Marcus Garan (Alain Moussi) agrees to a new contract in order to raise the funds to care for his child’s urgent medical needs. The contract is to take out notorious hitman Jorg Drakos (Frank Grillo), known as the King of Killers due to his record, so the task is already difficult, but it’s made even more-so when Marcus arrives to the site of his benefactor for a debriefing and discovers that not only is he going to be part of a team but that his benefactor is Drakos himself. This is no longer a standard track-and-catch contract, but a free-for-all, and only one will walk away with both the prize and new title of King of Killers.
There’s nothing wrong with DTV or direct-to-streaming projects. Some of the best films only find their footing within social consciousness because they were passed around (think VHS or discs) from person to person. Now, Lionsgate, the distributor for King of Killers, is also the home of almost-DTV destined John Wick (2014) and the blood drenched SISU (2023), so folks who are looking for a little bone-crunching mayhem may feel like they’re in good hands with King of Killers. The violence is here and, in a handful of scenes, it delivers on that expectation. There’s a throwdown between Grillo’s Drakos and Georges St-Pierre’s (Captain America: The Winter Solider) Angus that is as nasty as you want, staged and executed to make Drakos live up to his dangerous reputation while giving Angus a bit of shine. Later, when Nigel and Marcus have their own run-in, it’s brutal with the use of space making any object, any choice, feel weighted with life or death. Unfortunately, for the rest of the film, much of the action is captured without concern for audience investment, using cuts to infer momentum or impact rather than tracking shots at a distance so that we, the audience, never quite get a sense of true intensity. That the character arc for Marcus is also so heavily weighed down by not just one, but two tragedies, also hampers the energy of the film, often turning it into a melodrama with action sequences. There’s nothing wrong with tragedy as motivation, even multiple forms, but the execution here often feels like more of an afterthought than by design. For instance, in Grevioux’s script, there’s no explanation of why there’s an investigation into the first tragedy considering it’s tied to one of Marcus’s assassination assignments. Why would he be looking into it or anyone else without making him suspect number one? With the second incident, there’s dialogue used by Marcus to fill-in blanks that are not set-up prior to this, making everything related to it seem as uninspired as a 30 year plot on a soap opera. In truth, this second incident could be cut entirely with the first being reason enough to spur Marcus to join the contract despite retiring. This is less of a “I wish it had been done differently” and more that what works in a graphic novel format doesn’t always translate as neatly into cinema.
Whatever one thinks of the finished product, the sole behind the scenes featurette, simply titled “Behind the Scenes,” showcases just how much thought and care went into making the film. By hearing from members of the cast and crew, one gets a clear vision of what they each hoped to achieve. Grevioux doesn’t discuss what it’s like as a first-time feature director, but he talk about the casting of the characters and working with Moussi as his lead. Building off of that, Moussi (who also serves as a producer on the film) talks about how Grevioux entrusted him with creating the choreography for the action set pieces, making him the de factor action director. Don’t mistake this to mean that Moussi handled everything all on his own; rather, he brings up, sprinkled between on-set behind-the-scenes footage, how Ryan Tarran (who plays fellow killer Nigel and is listed as the stunt fight coordinator in the credits) and he worked in tandem to bring the action to life — a necessity when Moussi has far more in-front-of-camera work than Tarran. Oddly, we don’t get anything from stunt coordinator Shara Kim (Dark Phoenix; Suicide Squad), who also doubled as a character known only as “Geisha Assassin.” One thing is clear, though, that this 15-day shoot required several members of the filmmaking team to wear several hats in order to bring their specific vision to life.
Just as an FYI, for some reason (possibly cost-cutting) the Blu-ray/DVD/digital combo is contained in a typical DVD package. This isn’t a big deal, necessarily, except that physical media purchasers may go looking for the usual blue case and skip over the black DVD case. Or, conversely, if someone isn’t paying close enough attention to the small text at the top of the slipcover or liner, they may pick up a Blu-ray when they want just the DVD. It’s odd to do it this way, which is why the most likely explanation would be cost-cutting, as if the use of a pre-existing DVD case would use less costly material than a typical Blu-ray case would.
King of Killers has one really strong thing going for it and it’s where the story ends. No, not in a “credits rolling” snarky way, but how it transforms itself, opening up its story unexpectedly and putting into place a starting point for an interesting sequel. If Grevioux returns to helm it, with luck, he’ll have learned a few things from this experience that will help tighten his approach and solidify his vision. If he also returns to write it, one can hope that, with a more focused direction that the tease implies, there’s less a chance of unnecessary emotional stakes, clearing the way for merciless bloodletting that a film titled King of Killers implies.
King of Killers Special Features:
- Behind the Scenes Featurette (7:45)
In theaters, on VOD and digital September 1st, 2023.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD October 31st, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Lionsgate King of Killers webpage.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.