** WARNING – THIS IS A TOTAL, WANTON, UNINHIBITED, UNAPOLOGETIC SPOILER-FILLED SCRIPT REVIEW **
All right, let’s talk story.
Hitman is very much a standard issue conspiracy plot, very similar to Shooter in the sense that an expert killer gets hired to shoot a target (in this case, a Marxist-lovin’ Russian presidential candidate), but the job goes terribly awry (SURPRISE!). Suddenly, our main man finds himself swept up into the murky waters of government conspiracies. In Shooter, the protagonist works to clear his name. In Hitman, the protagonist doesn’t have a name. He’s just a number, which isn’t even above 50. So I doubt he’s all that concerned about clearing his anonymous number, and thus we need other goals to rope Agent 47 back into this wildly convoluted plot. Skip gives us 2:
1) The Marxist-lovin’ Russian presidential candidate, whom 47 shoots between the eyes in public, almost immediately shows up on TV giving more speeches with some bandages on his head. Is this really 47’s problem? He did his job. Not according to the agency, as they aren’t willing to pay him. (I was half-expecting 47 to tell Diana they should pay him for a second contract, because there’s an obvious body-double thing going on here, but that never happened.) So he has to find the real Marxist-lovin’ Russian presidential candidate and take him out.
2) A gorgeous Russian hooker (aren’t they all?) needs to be taken out, too, because she saw Agent 47 during the assassination attempt. Or… did she? A side-note about 47’s suits. I frickin’ love his suits, I really do, but if you’re going to take out a Russian presidential candidate IN RUSSIA with a Barrett .50 Caliber Long Range Sniper Rifle and you’re BALD with a BARCODE on the back of your head, you might want to nix the suit and try to BLEND IN. Just a thought. At least, that’s what I used to do, but that’s all I’m saying about my other life.
(Those caps are dedicated to you, my friend Joshua James.)
Question - are those two goals good enough for a story?
I’ll let you decide.
There are 5 layers to this screenplay that I want to explore. I’m covering 2 in this post, 3 in the next, and then I’ll analyze the characters. I can’t help it. There are lots of great topics to discuss and why not? I’m also saving my praise for Skip ‘til the end.
1 – FLASHBACK STRUCTURE
The hit on the Marxist-lovin’ Russian presidential candidate, which I would characterize as the Inciting Incident, doesn’t even happen until – holy crap – page 25 (or page 40 if this was formatted correctly). In most 120-page 3-act scripts, the entire FIRST ACT should be over by about page 27. This isn’t a 4-act story, or a non-plot, or an anti-plot or anything else - it’s a straightforward action picture that follows 3-acts. When you realize how long it takes before the main plot even begins, you’re annoyed. As far as I’m concerned, the hit on the Russian candidate should’ve been the opening scene.
What held Skip up for so long was a pointless Flashback Structure. For those who may not know, this is where we open with the ending. Usually there’s a cliff-hanger, because something’s at stake. Then a character “tells his/her story” (gag me). We go through the entire story (filled with voice overs) until we come full circle back to where we started at the ending. There’s usually a twist and then the story’s over. I despise this structure with every fiber of my being. Although I should thank quite a few scribes on TriggerStreet for showing me how some films used this structure to a good, defensible purpose – Amadeus, Double Indemnity, Titanic, to name a few. In the case of Amadeus and Double Indemnity, the audience gets emotionally prepared for the tragic ending. Okay, fine. In the case of Titanic (which Pat talked about in her third exposition article), we first see the ship after it sank, we learn how it sank, so that we’re not too distracted when it sinks.
So how was this used in Hitman? We open with Mike Whittier coming home. After wandering through the kitchen and family room he discovers a body wrapped in a rug and - WHOA - there’s Agent 47 with his .45s out (silencers attached). He’s sitting at his desk in his chair! God, hold me back. Mike’s very apprehensive.
He says, “If you’re going to kill me…”
47 interrupts him. “If I was gonna kill you, I would’ve done it when you walked to your car this morning, and been gone by the time your body hit the sidewalk. But, right now all you can think about is your family. And that is making you desperate. Desperate men do stupid things. Without the suppressor, this weapon will sound like a Howitzer going off in here. And… I don’t leave witnesses.”
Mike says, “I understand what you’re implying.”
“I’m not implying anything. If you make me kill you, Mike, you won’t go alone. Sit!” And then Agent 47 tells his whole frickin' bloody life story through voice over. God help me...
Four things I hate about this approach:
1) There is nothing Agent 47 tells us in voice over about being a hitman or anything else that we couldn’t easily figure out for ourselves just by watching the damn film.
2) We know that no matter what happens throughout the story, no matter how intense the action gets, no matter how many bad guys surround 47 with submachine guns, we'll never once have a reason to worry because we already know how it’ll end. Skip gave the game away before it even started! We now know that 47 and Mike will survive everything because they must inevitably wind up back where we started in Mike’s house to have that final showdown.
3) The only thing at stake in this setup is Mike’s life (and the lives of his family) and he's not even the protag. And since Agent 47 is the protag, we can already guess that he’s not going to mercilessly kill him and his wife and his kids, because it would piss us off to see the protag slaughter innocent people right before the closing credits.
4) Having said all of this, the only other question that remains is who is in the rug? So, tell me, is this question really important enough to warrant a Flashback Structure? Not one damn bit.
Unless it helps to prepare us for something that's kind of tragic, a Flashback Structure generally puts an audience at an emotional distance to the characters because it keeps them from just totally diving into your story. It takes away too much of the mystery and turns the plot into a connect-the-dots puzzle as opposed to making the audience wonder and worry scene-by-scene how it’s going to end. You’re given a nice, soft cushion to hold on to, because you can always remind yourself, “He can’t die because he has to wind up back in Mike’s house.”
You’re being too nice to the audience by giving them that cushion. We all know that audiences don’t really want a cushion. They want to be taken for that roller coaster ride from beginning to end, and they all want to sit in the front seat.
A few more scenes into the story, we learn that Mike works for Interpol, that he is hot on the trail of Agent 47, and he’s just dying to take him down, thus making him the antagonist. Well, this really pissed me off, because this means that Skip has already shown me how the protag and antag will inevitably face off in the Act 3 climax.
2 – A DRAMATIC POINT BEHIND THE HITMAN’S HITS
I once played Hitman 2. Had a great time. I have my own wonderful hitman outline and thought this might help provide some creative inspiration. It didn’t, but I had fun.
For each assignment in the game, there's a variety of options available to take out the target. You could do it in a silent, deadly fashion, like sneak into a man’s kitchen, pour poison onto his fish, sneak out, and wait for the confirmation that he’s dead. Or you could grab a bunch of guns and kill everyone in sight, including innocent people. (Depending upon my mood, I went either way. Hehehe…)
After each assignment, you’d get rated. If you’re really good and you put the poison in the fish without being seen or killing anyone but the target, you’ll get a “Silent Assassin” rating with very high marks. If you blast everyone in sight like a homicidal maniac, you’ll get a “Mass Murderer” rating with very low marks.
Skip Woods’ Agent 47 would fail at his own game because his solution to everything was to behave like a “Mass Murderer.”
Well, there were one or two minor exceptions, but generally speaking – mass murderer.
And this brings me to Agent 47’s second assignment in the script. First, Mike walks through a crime scene in a “private banquet room” in Budapest. “It is a blood bath,” Skip writes. Mike explains to the “Head Guy” of the Budapest Federal Police how it probably happened: “I believe based on the discarded waiter’s jacket, he assumed the position of a waiter… And entered the room unarmed… The first one to go was stabbed. Probably from one of the steak knives.”
And then we see exactly how it happened, which was just as Mike described. Are you kidding me? Do we really need to have it explained before we watch it? And yes, it is a merciless blood bath. 47 takes out ten guys with his Glocks. As he leaves, Mike tells us in voice over he leaves and “strolled out of the club’s back door…”
So let me ask the question – what’s the dramatic point of watching 47 wipe everyone out like that in a flashback? To show us what a homicidal maniac he is? This may be exciting in a game, but it sure as hell serves no dramatic purpose in an action film. And this brings up an interesting point. If you’re writing a hitman story, should you not make a dramatic point behind each assignment? Because there has to be a defensible purpose to the violence.
How many dramatic points can you come up with for a hit?
I give you 5:
1) The hit’s about how well he can accomplish the task, like in training.
2) The hit presents a moment of inner conflict for the protagonist, like a discovery that the target is a relative and he can’t go through with it or his personal feelings are somehow interfering with the assignment
3) An outside factor interferes, and the hitman has to suddenly change plans, like he discovers that he’s the target, or he’s been caught, or as in Spielberg's Munich a child runs back into the soon-to-be-exploding building, etc.
4) The hit is something the protag is doing without permission and at great risk.
5) The hit is about how the protag screws up.