Not to be confused with the 1975 film of the same name, the 2012 Four Assassins is a movie perhaps better appreciated at home rather than on the large screen. I say this, as moviegoers tend to expect big-budget special effects with crashing helicopters, motorcycle chases, and speaker-filling explosions when seeing titles that suggest, at the very least, choreographed martial arts bouts to the death.
But writer/director Stanley J. Orzel’s Four Assassins has a much different approach. With the exception of occasional flashbacks, the story has one setting, a plush Hong Kong hotel suite. Much of the dramatic tension occurs while the cast of four is eating dinner, not chasing each other over rooftops.
The film opens with hit-man Marcus Nang (Will Yun Lee, Die Another Day, Total Recall, Electra) firing two shots at his assigned targets. Then we see him in the hotel room, summoned there by an unseen boss.
Soon, Nang is joined by three colleagues. One is his ex-lover, Cordelia Leigh (Mercedes Renard, Hitch). She’s accompanied by Chase Holmes (Oliver Williams, a brash young gun. Finally, Eli Stoke (Miguel Ferrer, Traffic, Twin Peaks completes the quartet. He was mentor to both Dang and Leigh and now has a serious problem with Dang. Apparently, Dang was to have killed two targets on his last assignment, but only one body was found. The hotel room meeting was arranged to find out why.
Lee claims that when he read Orzel’s script, that he felt rather intimidated by what it demanded. He knew the character of Stoke would require an actor capable of world-weary gravitas, so he was the one to suggest Ferrer for the part. His instincts were spot on. When the four killers sit around the dinner table and reminisce about the old days, their chemistry, professionalism, and more less mutual respect are clear. But as the evening progresses and the pressure on Dang increases, the veneer of camaraderie erodes as each of the three inquisitors have different ideas about how to get to the truth.
Four Assassins has the look and feel of a stage play, and Lee says the cast knew this while preparing their shoots on location in Hong Kong. “There were long hours into the night,” he told me, “when we changed the script while we began to know our characters.” In the end, everything depends on these four personalities establishing themselves for the audience, blending together as a unit, and ultimately . . . well, that would be telling.
Presented in widescreen with an aspect ratio of 16 x 9 (2.35:1) and 5.1 digital surround sound, the DVD version of Four Assassins is a simple package, the movie and nothing more. That’s too bad as the behind-the-scenes story is intriguing. The film sometimes feels like a throwback to a bygone era, reminiscent of the days when character development and human interaction could engage an audience without need of pumped-up CGI.
Watching Four Assassins is a bit like a night out at the theatre, with 88 minutes devoted to a murder mystery that poses atypical questions. It’s amazing how much heat can be generated by good acting, a good script, with the violence served up as but one of the side dishes.