Spare a thought for the lost souls who stumble upon the direct-to-video (DTV) action cheapy “Assassin Club” while trawling some vast streaming platform (or maybe just the Walmart discount bin). At least “Assassin Club” accurately represents this tired thriller, which follows a young hitman (“Crazy Rich Asians” star Henry Golding) as he wearily trots about the globe, trying to identify and exterminate whoever’s placed a million-dollar bounty on his head. But while the ideal viewer of “Assassin Club” probably understands and accepts the limitations of this bottom-dollar time-waster, even the least choosy genre fans can do better than “Assassin Club.”
The premise, like the movie that follows, is simple enough. Golding stars as Morgan, an ex-Marine sniper turned hired killer who may look spry enough but is already considering retirement. Morgan dreams of starting a new life with his girlfriend Sophie (Daniela Melchior), but he must first complete one last high-paying job, and it’s obviously too good to be true: kill six villainous criminals for a million dollars a head.
Soon, the hunter becomes the hunted as Morgan realizes that the other six killers are fellow assassins, and oh yeah, there’s a bounty on his head, too. To find answers, Morgan seeks out the mysterious “Falk,” the only unidentified person among Morgan’s six targets. Golding’s character is also chased after by the conventionally short-tempered Interpol Agent Vos, played by Noomi Rapace. Intrigue should follow but, sadly, does not.
“Assassin Club” slouches from one plot development to the next, despite some lively, but poorly mounted action scenes; the choreographers, stuntpeople, and on-screen performers hit their marks, but the cameras don’t often flatter them. Golding stands out, if only for how hard he struggles to make something of his sketchy character.
It’s still probably telling that the most compelling parts of Morgan’s quest involve his mysterious broker/mentor Caldwell, played with some amused relish by Sam Neill. Morgan thinks Caldwell has betrayed him because Caldwell’s always lined up Morgan’s jobs for him, and also has convinced Morgan that he’s doing the right thing by only killing bad people. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel shocking or especially dramatic when Morgan discovers that Caldwell lied about his six targets’ identities.
The mischievous energy that Neill brings to his scenes might give viewers pause—maybe Caldwell’s right when he insists that he’s not really betraying Morgan—or sporadically give “Assassin Club” the illusion of emotional depth. Too bad the moviemakers aren’t really concerned with the weird tension that Caldwell’s character introduces, and Neill’s performance whisks away with him when he exits the picture.
More screentime is predictably devoted to Agent Vos, who tries to push the plot along by interrogating various supporting characters with a head-scratching accent that sounds like a cross between a Southern hick and a Lithuanian cabby. Then there are the other killers that Morgan’s supposed to hunt. Their defining quirks are never fully exploited either, which makes it harder to root for Golding’s beleaguered protagonist as he necessarily reacts to pulpy foils like Yuko (Sheena Hao), a man-hating martial artist, and Anselm (Claudio Del Falco), a finger-collecting psychotic.
Golding’s appreciable investment in his character doesn’t add much to his chemistry-free scenes with Melchior. He also struggles to make Morgan look like a tough guy with soul. Golding winces as his character plunges a syringe into an open neck wound while driving a stolen ambulance during a choppy and visually anemic car chase. Golding also snarls into his sniper rifle’s telescopic lens during his between-gritted-teeth recitations of William Butler’s Yeats Death, which Morgan has randomly made his pre-sniping mantra. Golding tries hard enough, but I just didn’t believe that he was a highly skilled assassin with all the stock character trimmings, including a concerned-but-clueless romantic partner, a possibly traitorous business partner, and a peculiar Interpol agent trailing after him, too.
To be fair, star power and character development might not be relevant to whoever’s watching “Assassin Club.” The formulaic pleasures of this kind of high-concept project may be enough to occasionally compensate for its creators’ low-energy execution. Then again, DTV action movies usually only stand apart from their A- or B-grade competitors when their creators’ have fully exploited some special X-factor quality that compensates for their frequent lack of other attractive qualities, like an original style, some marquee-topping leads or visual effects budget. You don’t really need any of that stuff to make a good enough genre exercise. However, you need something more than a committed cast of B+ (at worst) stars. Between underwhelming action scenes and draining expository dialogue, “Assassin Club” often leaves its cast out to dry.
On VOD now.