There aren't many people working in films right now who have the mastery of droll, deadpan humor that Bill Nighy possesses. So Wild Target should be right up his alley.
It is. Unfortunately, that alley is mostly a dead-end affair. Nighy so far outclasses this film that it makes you shake your head sadly at the waste of his talent. It's not that Wild Target is a terrible movie -- just a terribly disappointing one whose jokes are rarely up to its cast's talents.
Indeed, Nighy -- and Emil Blunt, Rupert Everett, Martin Freeman and Eileen Atkins -- nearly achieve a feat of comic alchemy. They wring laughs out of Lucinda Coxon's almost joke-free script, which is based on an obscure French comedy from the the 1990s. Virtually any time this movie elicits laughter, it's because of the performances, not the writing.
Nighy plays Victor Maynard, a middle-aged professional assassin, who has a spotless reputation in the trade. He's at the top of his craft -- a prim killer with few emotional ties and an almost airtight existence. But you get the impression that Victor wants more than his lucratively solitary life.
He unwittingly finds it in Rose (Blunt), his latest assignment. Rose is a carefree thief, who has swindled a wealthy gangster (and art collector) namd Ferguson (Everett) by selling him a fake Rembrandt for 900,000 pounds. As Victor stalks Rose, however, he's amused by her insouciant thievery in an open-air market and, even if he doesn't know it, beguiled by her beauty. By the time he gets around to killing her, however, Ferguson has sent his own man -- so Victor kills him just as the henchman is about to shoot Rose, then hires himself out to Rose as a bodyguard. He also takes in a car-cleaner named Tony (Rupert Grint), who he sees as a potential apprentice, to whom he can bequeath his wealth of professional knowledge.
The rest of the film alternates between the unlikely trio's escape and bonding and Ferguson's efforts to track them down. But Coxon -- perhaps constricted by the template of the original or the form of this screwball rom-com -- can't strike many comic sparks. It winds up as wan, weak, thin fare.
That doesn't mean there aren't pleasures to be had in the delightfully nuanced work of Nighy. His dry delivery makes a good contrast to the bubbly Blunt. She has the flighty air of mischief and unpredictability of a true comedienne - even if she doesn't have any real comedy to work with
Freeman (from the British version of The Office) is quite funny as Maynard's lugubrious professional rival, who comes gunning for him. And Everett is wonderfully imperious as the sadistic gangster.
But even their combined talents aren't enough to lift Wild Target beyond the level of being only mildly amusing. That's not good enough by half.