Wild Target Dir. Jonathan Lynn

[Magic Light Pictures; 2011]

Styles: black comedy
Others: Grosse Point Blank, The Matador, The Whole Nine Yards, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Jonathan Lynn is, if you care to look up his filmography, the greatest hack of a generation. IMDB him and you’ll recognize an astonishing number of titles. None of them, unfortunately, are any good, despite being vaguely memorable for one reason for another. Still, the consistency of his mainstream output alone makes Lynn some kind of auteur. He’s a poor man’s Ivan Reitman or a British Tom Shadyac, someone with neither the talent nor the will to bring a movie to a satisfying conclusion who has nonetheless built a long career out of high-profile, high-concept, low-return comedies. Eddie Murphy as a Senator in The Distinguished Gentlemen? Joe Pesci as a lawyer in My Cousin Vinny? Yeah, I saw those on video store shelves when I was 10. Greedy, the one where Kirk Douglas tries to drown Michael J. Fox — I think I caught that on TV at 14. Trial and Error with Michael Richards and Jeff Daniels? Sgt. Bilko with Steve Martin? Clue? All these movies register with the pop culture locator in my brain; they’re just filed under “Middling Nineties Comedies.” Lynn is the unsung, moderately hardworking hero of big stars’ misdirected vehicles, and he’s still churning out farces at the end of the aughts.

Although he’s finally traded the American middlebrow for his native England and some of its better actors, Wild Target is still a movie Lynn already made — a comedy about a hit man considering a life change — with The Whole Nine Yards. Like all of his films, it’s got an unoriginal setup and scads of clichéd characters but is funny exactly as often as it finds a way to freshen up old jokes. When the jokes are done well — when a hit man is torn, from moment to moment, between kissing a girl and slashing her throat, or when a talking parrot is the one link between a murderer’s anonymity and his capture — Wild Target feels a cut above the genre it’s attempting to settle into. When it falls back on foul-mouthed old ladies firing machine guns, it’s basically awful. Mostly it sways lazily between barely landing its punchlines and complete ineptitude.

Briefly: the great Bill Nighy plays the consummate professional assassin Victor Maynard, whose assignment — to whack out Rose (Emily Blunt), a con-artist — derails when he falls for her. Turned into her bodyguard, with Tony (Rupert Grint) as his sidekick and Hector Dixon (Martin Freeman) on his tail, Victor attempts to retain his aristocratic composure and protect Rose among the bumbling and bullets of a cast of Londoners straight out of a watered-down Guy Ritchie movie.

As with fish-out-of-water lawyers and in-over-their-heads politicians, we’ve seen this over-sensitive hitman before, and in funnier movies. But because Lynn clearly loves comedy — not surprising since he’s been at it for more than 30 years — it’s all the more disappointing that Wild Target, initially fairly funny, quickly devolves into a mess of tired jokes and loose ends. It’s been made by a man who should by now be a master; its laziness may prove that he never intended to be.

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