In the thriller “Killing Season,” the circumstances of the Bosnian conflict of the early 90’s are used as the backdrop for a forgettably routine twist on the “most dangerous game” idea.
Robert De Niro stars as a former NATO military officer whose unit witnessed, and participated in, war atrocities during the Balkan conflict. Because of the weight of his guilt, he has retired from the military life and retreated from society and family, living in a reclusive cabin deep in the Appalachian woods. One morning, he comes across a bearded, obviously foreign hiker (John Travolta) who helps him out of a jam. They strike up an apparent friendship over a late-night bottle, and go bow hunting together the next morning.
For this first act of director Mark Steven Johnson’s film, “Killing Season” seems to be teetering on the brink of a thoughtful, almost talky drama about the weight of conscience and the possibility of redemption. Instead, after the two head into the woods, Travolta reveals to De Niro his true purpose– revenge for De Niro’s ‘sins’ during the war– and the hunt is on. The thriller then swallows everything thoughtful in its path, and the film quickly descends into a dull and predictable series of pursuits, captures, and escapes, broken up by two rather painful torture sequences and Travolta’s odd, distracting Serbo-Amish beard (I waited in vain for a flashback scene showing him churning butter in some backwoods barn).
Using historical horrors as narrative fodder is a dubious, time-honored tradition in major studio films looking for a gloss of respectability, and “Killing Season” is far from the most egregious exploiter of such events. It’s slick and professional, the stunts are well-staged, and there is some lovely wilderness photography by DP Peter Menziesa.
But there is a dull, plodding feel to the proceedings, like everyone involved realized from frame one the emptiness of the exercise. De Niro’s dull, plodding performance is a large part of the problem, but unfortunately that seems to be the best we can expect out of him anymore. In writer Evan Daugherty’s script, hints are dropped at various times about a deeper, more complicated character for De Niro, one that simply never emerges. The hints remain just that.
Travolta is probably miscast here, never finding much beyond surface in his haunted, obsessed veteran. But he at least seems engaged in his scenes. I also must confess that I couldn’t keep my eyes off that beard, so maybe the facial hair did most of the heavy lifting. Hard to tell.
At times, the filmmakers indulge in some heavy-handed symbolism, like the two bucks seen locking horns in the woods early on, and several plot points strain credulity or seem conveniently overlooked. But those are small problems compared to the spectre of passive resignation hovering over start to finish. Unless you are generating an algorithm tracking the growth rate of De Niro’s apparent disdain for acting, “Killing Season” will pass in and out of your consciousness leaving nary a blip. Except for the beard.
“Killing Season” is presented in “ 16×9, 1.78:1 full frame” format. The disc nicely picks up the misty grays and earthy textures of the cinematography. There are English SDH and Spanish subtitle options.
The audio track is 5.1 Dolby TrueHD. and is detailed enough to catch every nuance of Travolta’s heroic struggle with his Eastern European accent, and De Niro’s glassy-eyed line readings.
The only included extra is a standard promotional making-of featurette
“Killing Season” barely registers on the radar, a forgettable action thriller with John Travolta and Robert De Niro as Bosnian war vets playing a deadly game of vengeance in the Appalachian woods.