Films go through a long process between the screenplay that sells and what gets released in theatres. With Script to Screen, we want to examine how the the development and production processes impact a film. Did a bad script yield a good film? Would the filmmakers have been better off shooting the script they bought rather than rewriting it into something more generic? We hope to answer questions like these. Since the column is more analytical in nature, it will contain HUGE SPOILERS for the scripts and films discussed. Do not read on if you haven’t seen [Five] Killers.
Everything that went wrong with Killers can be traced to the title change: from the fairly specific (or, at least, enigmatically intriguing) Five Killers to the generic, not-at-all-compelling Killers. On the page, Five Killers spins an entertaining, occasionally thrilling tale that blends Mission: Impossible-esque espionage with good-natured romantic comedy. On the screen, it seems the filmmakers decided to scale way back on the espionage in favor of the romantic comedy angle. The result is uneven, to put it mildly.
Let’s start with the screenplay’s storyline, which I will eventually contrast with the differences in the film. Spencer (Ashton Kutcher) is essentially portrayed as a low-grade Ethan Hunt, a young but masterful spy. The early scenes do a great job of setting the tone: while Spencer lurks around Corsica, tracking and ultimately bombing a mysterious, supervillain known as “Leveneux,” he has a goofy Meet-Cute with Jen (Katherine Heigl), who’s vacationing with her overbearing, intrusive parents. They share a cute, slightly awkward moment, at which point Spencer asks Jen out. Gleeful, evidently lonely Jen prepares for a date with Spencer, while he plants a bomb on Leveneux’s escape helicopter. They both dash to an outdoor café, overlooking the Mediterranean, just in time to see the chopper explode.
A montage follows, depicting their whirlwind courtship and marriage. During this montage, Spencer quits working as a spy and opens a small design firm in the suburbs. The script then jumps ahead three years, to a much more complacent Jen and Spencer. They’re still in love, but they’re decidedly a settled married couple. Spencer has some issues with the amount of time Jen spends with her parents. Jen has some issues with how much time he spends at work. After the script introduces a cavalcade of suburban stereotypes with outsized personalities, Spencer gets a call from his old handler, who has a line on “The Leopard,” the mysterious, Blofeld-like boss of Leveneux. He’s not dead. The handler wants to meet, but Spencer refuses. That night, Jen throws a surprise party in anticipation of Spencer’s birthday. The following morning, Spencer finds his best friend, Henry, trying to kill him.
From there, Jen learns of Spencer’s secret past as a spy, and Spencer learns (from Henry) that he has a $20 million bounty on his head. Henry knows more assassins will be hot on Spencer’s trail, but he doesn’t know how many, who put the bounty on Spencer, or why they were paid to “sleep” in Spencer’s subdivision for three years before activation. Spencer assumes it has something to do with his handler. The remainder of the story focuses on two major plot threads: Spencer and Jen uncovering information about who hired the assassins (Spencer assumes it’s The Leopard, who realizes Spencer and his handler have gotten too close, so his main goal is to use information about the assassins to find out The Leopard’s true identity), and the couple attempting to elude and/or fight various assassins. With all this happening, Jen struggles to deal with Spencer’s deception, and Spencer struggles with the idea that he may be a father (yes, the pregnancy subplot rears its ugly head midway through the script).
Overall, the script is a fun read. The spy material is engaging but not overwrought, and the writers do a solid job of balancing the tonal shifts. They also mine a lot of suspense and a sense of paranoia from the idea that literally anybody could be an assassin. The ending, which I’ll be nice and not ruin, is inevitable but not at all predictable. It’s not without its flaws, however. In particular, Jen is a one-note character. She doesn’t really have any traits beyond “overly dependent on her parents.” The attempt to give her a conflict of her own — anxiety over when and how to tell Spencer about her pregnancy — doesn’t add as much dimension to her as the writers seem to think. They also don’t play enough with the idea of Spencer deceiving Jen on an epic scale, making her pregnancy secret a relatively minor offense.
The portrayal of the assassins constitutes another big flaw of the screenplay. The writers lay it out pretty simply: shortly after their marriage, an unknown boss hired five killers (hence the title) to befriend or work with Spencer and/or Jen. The assassins had two conditions: they’d have to wait an unknown length of time before the boss activated them, and they’d be dueling with each other for the $20 million bounty. Here’s the main problem: once revealed as assassins, the killers don’t break character. They remain wacky suburban stereotypes, preoccupied with fishing trips and property lines despite the fact that they’re in the middle of car chases and shootouts. The incongruity is amusing on a basic comedic level, but it doesn’t make any actual sense.
Another, more minor problem with them is how easily Spencer dispatches them. He kills four of the five assassins with relative ease, leading to a third-act block party filled with paranoid dread as Spencer and Jen try to identify the final killer. The fix for these two issues is sheer elegance in its simplicity: make the assassins go soft. They’ve spent three years assuming the cover of a dull suburbanite, a UPS driver, or an intern. The way these characters describe the torture of suburbia left me with the impression that they’re not used to “sleeping” in these covers identities for so long. Humans — even sociopathic assassins — are very adaptable creatures. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising or unreasonable to think they’d put on a little weight and got a little more invested in fishing than in keeping up with target practice or the latest in bombing technology. It kills two birds with one stone, explaining why Spencer has such an easy time killing them and why they remain fixated on their bland suburban lives as they spray machine-gun fire in Spencer’s direction.
Did the film rectify any of these problems? Sort of…but it makes a lot of new, more debilitating mistakes. This is the rare film that is wildly divergent from its screenplay. Usually, some things change in production, but only a few scenes and the (very) basic storyline remain intact in Killers.
On the positive side, the film gives Jen and her parents much more personality — so much so that it no longer makes much sense when she and Spencer argue about her dependence on her parents. As the Kornfelds, Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara mine some of the biggest laughs, but the characters are totally different. Gone are the overbearing perfectionists; in their stead, Selleck is a cold, constantly disapproving bully, and O’Hara is an over-the-top lush (the sort of woman who makes a pitcher of Bloody Marys for breakfast and drinks the whole thing as if it’s a giant glass). Jen treats them more with annoyance than dependence.
Jen, herself, has much more going on. When we first meet her, she’s a sentient bundle of anxiety, in constant fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Heigl does a nice job of showing the change “three years later” — she’s much more relaxed and subdued now that she’s found her soulmate. However, the groundwork is there for her to panic and overreact when the assassins come calling. The script eventually attributes this to mood swings associated with pregnancy, which is sort of a lame explanation that attempts to make the character less interesting.
However, the assassins remain the same, warts and all. The entire supporting cast is populated by comedic ringers like Rob Riggle (The Daily Show), Alex Borstein (Mad TV), and Martin Mull (Fernwood 2 Night). That they’re all recognizable makes it harder to identify whom the assassins might be. That they’re all comedians forces them to go a few hundred shades over the top, compounding the problems with the assassins’ portrayal in the script. (However, Mull gives an impressively restrained performance, but he’s in the movie for a total of about 38 seconds.)
The film’s plot is a curiosity. Whereas the screenplay combines the romantic-comedy elements with the legitimate sense of a thriller, the changes to the story and characters reflect a definite “rom-com first, thriller seventh” attitude. The film strips away the majority of spy material, making those delicately balanced tonal shifts jarring and weird. Shootouts and car chases are inexplicably punctuated with music left over from the Under the Tuscan Sun scoring sessions. The lack of suspense and simplification of the plot present serious problems because they make the characters’ movement from location to location meaningless. It feels like they’re just traveling to a different place to vary the action sequences. Admittedly, that’s the script’s ultimate goal — but it gives the characters palpable purpose for going to the places they go.
I have one question, to which I have no definitive answer: what the hell happened? How did a reasonably good (if slightly problematic) script turn into such a wildly uneven, borderline incoherent movie? Is this another example of too many cooks spoiling the broth? Director Robert Luketic bears at least some of the blame. The film de-emphasizes the thriller aspects, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely gone. It is, after all, still a film about a couple trying to get away from assassins. He’s responsible for the total lack of suspense and poorly staged action sequences.
Worse than that, though, the film feels like a bunch of ill-fitting pieces jammed together. Some scenes — notably, Jen and Spencer’s meeting and the “they buy a pregnancy test” scene — are identical to what’s in the script. Everything surrounding these scenes changed, but they don’t quite sync up anymore. It’s almost like they started shooting with the draft of the script I read, but the writers were forced to rewrite the script on-set to accommodate both what they’d already shot and what the director or producers or actors or agents or executives decided the movie now “needed.” For instance, the pregnancy is a major subplot in the screenplay, but in the finished film it’s an unnecessary distraction. Now that Jen’s character has totally changed, for the better, why not just cut it altogether?
It’s always a shame when a good script goes bad. Five Killers had its share of problems, but it would have turned out a lot better than Killers did.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.
— Reviewed June 25, 2010