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Good Kill

Year: 2014
Production Co: Voltage Pictures
Director: Andrew Niccol
Writer: Andrew Niccol
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Bruce Greenwood, January Jones, Zoë Kravitz, Peter Coyote

Every new Andrew Niccol movie comes with equal amounts of fear and hope. You really want him to get back to the brilliance of Gattaca, The Truman Show (which he wrote), the under-appreciated S1m0ne and Lord of War, but you're equally scared he'll give us another In Time (a Twilight Zone idea that went on way too long and had terrible casting) or The Host (a clumsy sci-fi riff for the Twilight / The Hunger Games crowd that failed at both).

Unfortunately, Good Kill means we'll have to keep waiting for another of the films where he melds a cool sci-fi or social commentary concept with great execution. The film has a concept, but neither it nor its unfolding are fleshed out enough.

Niccol's always worn his opinions a little bit on his sleeve, like he did about genetic engineering in Gattaca or the international arms trade in Lord of War. It makes the better among his films all the more legitimate as socially conscious art. In lesser ones like Good Kill it just means he's hitting you over the head with it.

As the gruff, profane drone squad commander Johns (Bruce Greenwood), Niccol has written a mouthpiece for all the doubts, fears and dirty politics behind drone warfare. The problem is the knowing cynicism is ladled on so thick you end up not believing anything that comes out the character's mouth, imagining it's just Niccol shouting his views from the sidelines.

Greenwood is also too poised and polished for the part of Johns, revealing another of Niccol's casting missteps (see Justin Timberlake in In Time and Diane Kruger in The Host). The terminally angry, sweary senior commander needed someone grizzled like Nick Nolte or Sam Elliott.

As his lead character, Ethan Hawke is also completely wrong as former combat pilot turned drone controller Tom Egan. Hawke is so vivacious and expressive in films like Richard Linklater's Before series, and here his stony face, constant scowl and lack of expression would have suited Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Egan is a family man living in the suburbs of Las Vegas and working in an air conditioned shipping container on a desert airbase where he pilots drones circling the Middle East, killing Taliban insurgents with impunity and no personal risk.

But two things are bringing him undone at the seams. First, he's a former pilot and he belongs behind the controls of a fighter plane, not playing video games in a temperature-controlled room minutes from his wife and kids and the bright lights of the Vegas strip.

He's also eaten up by a kind of guilt at being safe across the other side of the world pulling a trigger even though he makes no call about who lives and dies and the powers that be are completely satisfied with innocents getting in the way. One of the most effective moments in the film (which Niccol probably intended the whole film to be like) is when he's reliving blowing up a target and going on to blow up the target's funeral and everyone there in order to kill his consorts.

It's a worthy theme, but the missing piece in most discussion about drone warfare is that pilots in direct command of planes have to follow orders about who to kill just the same. Just because you're sitting on top of the weapon doesn't give you any more autonomy.

It's also the unfairness of war's brutal numbers game that's causing he and colleagues to come apart. In just one example, they blow up two kids who happen to run past the wrong intersection at the wrong time, but can't do a thing when they see some scumbag enter a compound and repeatedly beat and rape the household servant woman through the unblinking eye from thousands of feet overhead.

When orders come down that they're to answer to an anonymous voice from the CIA for a few weeks – whose intentions are even murkier – Egan only starts to crack all the more.

He's hitting the bottle, won't talk to his beautiful but increasingly impatient wife Molly (January Jones), and starts lashing out at anyone who looks at him wrong. Worse still, he's feeling like the only one who understands him is squadmate Suarez (Zoë Kravitz), and he might be getting dangerously close to her as a result.

The premise is sound enough, it's just so hard to believe in any of the people or their motivations. After so many barely-plausible plot turns, Egan's final act of contrition borders on ridiculous. Niccol waves it away with a few convenient narrative devices, but it's especially hard to swallow when Egan does something similar earlier in the story and it generates the kind of response it would in the real world.

Casting and preaching seems to be Niccol's two downfalls recently, but if he gets them right we might not have seen the last of his great work.

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