Hitman: Agent 47 & the video game movie problem

There are some excellent video game-influenced movies out there. They're just not based on video games.

Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter: The Movie, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Doom, DOA: Dead or Alive, Max Payne, Silent Hill: Revelations 3D.

No, no, this isn’t a list of the worst movies ever made. It’s a choice selection of films from the last 20 years that have been based on video games. And as you can see, it makes for grim reading. But before we get into that, some brief history.

Video games can never be art.

Despite the huge success of the gaming industry, which is now the most profitable form of entertainment, video games are still seen an inferior art form. The late, great Roger Ebert famously kicked a beehive in 2010 when he proclaimed that “Video games can never be art.” Long story short, this kicked off a robust debate. This is despite the fact that Roger himself had never played a video game in his life. But his sweeping declaration seems to reflect gaming’s current status within the arts.

So when a critic says, “This movie is just like a video game,” it’s rarely meant as a compliment. It often refers to an action or science fiction movie with a simplistic plot, paper thin characters, and an over reliance on CGI. The Transformers series is the poster child for this complaint, but it’s been used to describe everything from The Matrix to 300 and beyond.

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But respected or not, games have become a bigger and better part of our culture. The current generation of filmmakers is by the far the most game savvy, having grown up on the likes of Nintendo, PlayStation, and Xbox. The launch of the original PlayStation in the early 90s marked an important cultural shift in how gaming was perceived. Suddenly it became hip and accepted. Being a gamer no longer meant you were a friendless loner. It was something even the cool kids got up to.

And with the advance in technology, video games started to ape cinema as much as possible, with more complex stories, visuals, and sound. Titles such as Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, and Tomb Raider were at the forefront of this trend, and soon the influence of video games started to seep into movies, too.

And that’s where the problem begins. When you take a medium that is fundamentally interactive, and you turn it into a passive experience, you’re taking away a lot of its power. The earliest examples of video game movies (Super Mario, Double Dragon, Street Fighter) were clearly made by people who neither understood, nor respected, the medium. They only wanted to cash in on a popular brand. The only reason 1994’s Mortal Kombat holds up reasonably well is that Paul W.S. Anderson is a gamer, and infused it with some of that sensibility. 

And it’s harder to think of a sub-genre that’s more critically derided than the video game movie (outside of maybe parody films). They frequently score terrible reviews, and if you read a list of the worst films ever made, don’t be surprised to spot a couple in there. Be sure to say hi to Uwe.

The closest the genre might come to its Citizen Kane is Christophe Gan’s 2006 adaptation of Silent Hill. It’s a lovingly made tribute to its source material, with a solid cast, some gorgeous visuals, production design, and camera work. But even then, it’s dragged down by a plodding script and some awkward integration of video game logic, such as a whole montage dedicated to a character finding their way around Silent Hill looking at their map.

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The Olyphant in the room

All of which brings us up to modern day, and the trailer for the new take on Hitman: Agent 47.

The Hitman games give you control Agent 47, a genetically-engineered assassin. And while you can go into a mission guns blazing, often the most rewarding path is for the player to only kill the intended target. You use your wits and cunning, with no gunfights or needless violence. In that sense, it’s almost like a sandbox puzzle game, where patience, creativity, and timing are key.

So naturally, none of this was in the first adaptation of Hitman. Released in 2007, it starred Timothy Olyphant in the title role. Few will deny Olyphant is a fine actor, and while he gives it his best shot (pun totally intended), he’s simply miscast. The Agent 47 from the game is a stern, calculating figure with no friends or personal attachments. In the movie, he learns to feel when he rescues a prostitute (Olga Kurylenko, in various forms of undress), and he’s not above some flirting and the odd wisecrack. Add to that the emphasis on gory shootouts, and you have a movie that pays mere lip service to its source.

It’s understandable that the filmmakers decided to juice up the action for an audience unfamiliar with the games, but in doing so, they took away what was unique about it in the first place. And while the movie did decent business, the reviews were not kind and a direct sequel never emerged.

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So along comes the rebooted Hitman: Agent 47, that’s due in cinemas later this year. Paul Walker was originally cast in the lead, but his tragic death in 2013 saw English actor Rupert Friend cast as the new Agent 47 instead. And it’s already clear – just on the basis of the trailer that’s been released – that he’s a better fit for the role. Physically he bears a closer likeness to the character, he’s understated, speaks only when he has to and isn’t afraid to adopt the occasional disguise.

But it’s a shame that there’s a noisy, cartoonish action movie slotted in around him. Appreciating that this is just the trailer, CG cars and helicopters explode, gun fights occur in the middle of crowded streets, and blaring rock music lets you know how cool it is. Within the first minute, it’s already ripped off The Matrix (twice!) and Watchmen, as we witness the world’s dumbest interrogator loading a rifle, and then leaving it within grabbing distance of a self proclaimed professional assassin. Action movies are allowed to be dumb, but do they have to be this dumb?

Let’s just say that the early signs suggest the makers of Hitman: Agent 47 have not learned from the mistakes of the past. If anything, they’ve just been amplified. The final cut of the film may yet prove us wrong.

Why is it so difficult to make a movie out of a game that is both a critical and commercial hit? One that honors the source while working as a movie in its own right? Strangely, it’s already been proven that this is possible. A number of films have shown you can successfully translate video game logic to the big screen. It’s just that none of them have actually been based on videogames.

Live. Die. Replay.

The most recent example of this is the underrated Tom Cruise actioner Edge of Tomorrow. A sci-fi twist on Groundhog Day, it finds The Cruiser as a soldier fighting a futuristic war against alien invaders. For some reason he’s been granted the ability to relive the same day over and over, which he uses to learn the alien’s weaknesses and to find a way to win the war. Just from the description, the video game parallels are clear. And the finished product is practically a live action version of the gaming experience.

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You have Tom Cruise’s inexperienced character thrown headfirst into a chaotic, Call of Duty-style battle. He fumbles with the “controls” of his battle suit, trying to figure out the buttons, but is quickly overwhelmed and killed. He “respawns,” forced to fight again. But he starts to figure out how to fight, so he lasts a little longer each time.

Throughout the story, he also experiences combat training, where he levels up to become a better warrior. He goes through a couple of “on the rail” vehicle sections, including a manned turret (complete with infinite ammo) to hold off enemies. If he fails an objective, or “level,” he dies to start over again, something that any gamer can relate to.

Digging deeper there are “co-op” scenes where Cruise teams up with Emily Blunt’s fellow soldier to fight the enemy, multiple dialogue paths where he interacts with characters in a new way, and there’s even an end boss battle. The visuals are closely linked to video games, too. The robotic battle armor wouldn’t look out of place in the F.E.A.R series. Even the ridiculously oversized sword Emily Blunt’s character wields throughout bears resemblance to the one seen in Final Fantasy VII.

Of course, none of this happened by accident. Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the author of the book the movie is based upon, All You Need Is Kill, is an avid gamer. Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman has repeatedly spoken in interviews about how he wanted the journey of the character to simulate the feeling of playing a game.

In relation to Cruise’s constant respawns, he said, “Edge of Tomorrow actually takes it a step further in that you have a character that’s immortal in the way that video game characters are, but you also get that same frustration of getting almost to the end and then, ‘Oh no, I was sent back to the beginning.’”

The film deserves credit for working video game structure into a movie in an organic, logical way, and above all, being entertaining to boot. A movie like Edge of Tomorrow feels like it’s been a long time coming, since movies and video games have been steadily cross pollinating for years.

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“Guns. Lots of guns.”

The Matrix is a famous early example, where we see the main character train in “tutorial” levels, gaining new abilities as he progresses. It has a stealth section, a vehicle level, and even boss fights spread throughout. The enemies, from the SWAT teams to the Agents, are mostly faceless, empty ciphers. Even the setpieces ape game progression, such as the building assault finale. The lobby gunfight leads to a boss battle, to a vehicle section, to another fight, and so on.

Oddly enough, the much maligned Paul W.S. Anderson could be seen as an auteur of the genre (no hear me out, come back!). His adaptation of Mortal Kombat helped kick off the trend, and games have been a steady inspiration on his output. Obviously, there are the Resident Evil movies. They’ve adapted setpieces and characters from the games, but the most obviously game-inspired entry in the series would be 2012’s Retribution.

The main character finds herself trapped in an underground lab, and she must progress through different “stages” that are facsimiles of cities like New York and Moscow. Each area is filled with different types of creatures, traps, and obstacles, and she must adapt her tactics to survive. It’s a clear concept, allowing for a lean, stripped down narrative. It even, intentionally or otherwise, mimics the game series’ trademark stilted acting and dialogue. Yeah, let’s pretend that was intentional.

The most game-inspired film on Anderson’s CV is 2008’s Death Race. The story sees Jason Statham’s prisoner taking part in a televised race, where combatants in armored vehicles fight each other for a chance at freedom. The concept is like a strange mash-up of Twisted Metal and Mario Kart, as the racers drive cars outfitted with machine guns and rockets. These weapons are activated by driving over special panels, not unlike Mario Kart, and each one has its own special abilities, strengths, and weaknesses.

While Anderson’s movies have never (and will never) be high art, as a gamer, he at least understands the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, and has been able to translate that to his film work. And he’s not alone. You can look at The Raid, with its simple level by level progression, intermittent boss fights, and a little survival horror, and see a definite video game flavor.

And the same could be said of the structure of films like Dredd, Sucker Punch, Elysium, Existenz, Inception, After Earth, and so on. Crank 1 & 2 are about as close to a Grand Theft Auto movie as we’re likely to get. Act of Valor is practically Call of Duty: The Movie, right down to the POV gunfights. Films may have inspired video games a great deal, but the influence is clearly a two way street.

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So isn’t it finally time for the video game movie genre to dust itself off, learn from past mistakes, and leave its critical stigma behind?

Reset

There’s reason to be optimistic that it can. The next wave of video game movies have been attaching some quality talent. Duncan Jones, himself no stranger to video game style narratives (Source Code), is helming a big budget take on Warcraft, with a quality cast line-up that includes Ben Foster, Travis Fimmel and Toby Kebbell. Michael Fassbender will headline Assassin’s Creed, with Marion Cotillard co-starring. And Doug Liman and Tom Hardy are attached to a live action take on Splinter Cell

Elsewhere, Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams is rumored for an adaptation of the acclaimed The Last of Us, and directors have been attached to the long in development takes on Metal Gear Solid and Uncharted.

Only time will tell if the video game movie can reinvent itself and become a genre people look forward to, rather than roll their eyes at. It’s got a long fight ahead, but with a promising line-up of movies, backed by talented filmmakers who understand the medium, the battle is not lost.

While the debate about video games being art rages on, who knows, maybe in fifty years Pac-Man: The Movie, starring an Oscar-winning Mark Strong, will be considered one of the finest films of the 21st century? And if that does end up happening, I’d like to imagine somewhere, old Roger is having a chuckle to himself.

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