One of the main reasons John Wick works so well is because it boils its storytelling down to a mythical approach. You have a grieving badass tragically yanked out of "retirement", his unfortunate targets, and an innumerable number of rounds spent in the name of retribution. Yet beyond that ingeniously simplistic approach is the fact that Keanu Reeves is the very embodiment of an enigmatic movie star, bringing an ethereal, unknowable quality to the titular super assassin. He is the Baba Yaga, because no one else can be - just as no one else can ever be Keanu.
Ethan Hawke is no Keanu Reeves, and 24 Hours to Live is no John Wick, no matter how hard its creative forces are trying to position the picture as the next action cinema classic. However, that doesn’t mean Hawke’s turn at bat for some ultraviolent mayhem is worthless, as there’re certainly two set pieces that rise above the DTV median 24 Hours otherwise hovers around. But it’s pretty clear what the intentions were when Brian Smrz - a stunt coordinator making his feature debut, just as David Leitch and Chad Stahelski were on Wick - stepped behind the camera. Here we have another bereaved super assassin, lured in for "one last job", before embarking on his own quest for justice after he fails and is resurrected via an experimental procedure that grants him a single day to make things right. Slap a clip in those pistols, we’ve got some mercs to mow down.
Hawke is honestly the main problem with 24 Hours to Live, as its difficult to buy the warm, earthy actor as this unstoppable killing machine. After his work with Richard Linklater (especially in films like Boyhood or the Before trilogy*), he’s molded the persona of a likable everydude, who you’re probably more likely to find sleeping on your couch during a music festival than in an intense gunfight. Over the last decade, Hawke’s been bucking against that image as much as he’s worked to bolster it, appearing in such varied genre fare as sci-if/horror hybrids (Daybreakers, Predestination), spooky chillers (Sinister), and lackluster car chase thrillers (Getaway).
Nevertheless, when we first meet out the game contract killer Travis Conrad, he’s punch drunk in a Canadian tuxedo, swilling from a bottle on the beach with his similarly melancholy father-in-law (Rutger Hauer, providing a glorified cameo) before dumping his wife and son’s ashes into the ocean. So, when he’s asked to pick his guns back up in the very next scene by a former colleague (Paul Anderson), we’re seeing both of Hawke’s minted modes back to back, creating an actorly instance of performative whiplash that’s difficult to reconcile. All the sudden, the guy on your couch is raging with two pistols in his paws, and its a little tough to buy.
Thankfully, Smrz knows exactly what type of movie he’s making, as the opening South African convoy siege is a brutal bit of smash and grab action filmmaking. Seems a witness (Tyrone Keogh) is set to testify against the paramilitary outfit Travis snipes for, as he was a witness to some shady business during his employment. But the singing bird's Interpol guard (Qing Xu) is a little quicker on the draw than both the initial assassins and their new pursuer, sending Travis to the great beyond only to be revived with a ticking clock implanted in his arm (the procedure is never actually explained, which is mildly frustrating). Though when Travis returns, he has a change of heart, as the assassin isn’t about to watch this soulless murder corporation take down the devoted woman (or kidnap her child), as he knows what it means to lose a loved one. So, his Crank-esque race against time becomes a moral dash to save one’s soul, all while paid devils are hot on both their tails, zinging bullets over their heads.
Smrz is wise to sequence the set pieces in escalating order, each one just a little more intense than the last. A high caliber sniper showdown is rather impressive, gigantic rounds smashing whole windows and sending bodies flying into walls, as everyone attempts to duck and cover. The budget is stretched to its limits during several speedy chases, as SUVs careen into buildings and one another with reckless abandon. Cinematographer Ben Nott (Chinese Zodiac) captures the carnage with a rather steady lens, working with his director to deliver the goods fans who sign up for this brand of high octane destruction expect.
Sadly, there’s not a whole lot of variety to the action, and almost zero hand-to-hand combat. 24 Hours to Live is almost a strict shooter, without the flair of Wick's elaborate gun-fu. When combined with Hawke’s inability to portray a man of violence we truly believe in, Smrz’s work falls somewhat flat. It's a shame, as the craft on display shows a genuine level of promise, so once the director is given a lead and a world in which to insert his knack for choreographed chaos, he'll more than likely deliver a sturdily built action movie fans can hold up alongside the classics.
*And honestly, how did the marketing miss a chance to sneak in a joke here and say "he's got some justice to dole out...before death"? (Or something.)