‘Good Kill’
Director:
Andrew Niccol
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Zoe Kravitz
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The screenwriter and director Andrew Niccol is like the student who does just a hair more than was required, hoping to eke by on the technicality of not only following the guidelines. He’s tackled reality TV and voyeurism (“The Truman Show”), genetics (“Gattaca”), the digital age (“S1m0ne”) and war profiteering (“Lord of War”). Some are more insightful than others, but even the best (“The Truman Show”) suffers from an unimaginative and too on-the-nose third act. (“Gattaca,” meanwhile, closes with a swimming climax.) “Good Kill” is his take on the drone program, and it’s a smart take that, sure enough, offers just slightly more than you would have imagined, and goes exactly where you think it will go.

“Good Kill”’s main point of contention is the detachment that comes with drone piloting. Frequent Niccol star Ethan Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, or Major Tom, who spends his days in a Las Vegas base, sitting in a chair and playing the equivalent of a video game with real-life consequences. After a day bombing people on the other side of the world, he drives home to his family and has a barbecue. That’s almost verbatim what he tells a convenience store clerk in the opening minutes of the film, in a line that’s both a trailer-ready quotable and keeping with how on-the-nose the film gets generally. Much like the warriors in “Three Kings,” Thomas thought he’d see some action but winds up getting it only virtually. Moreover, the effect of waging war all day has put a strain on his marriage, leading to joyless hump sessions with his wife (January Jones, ever underutilized) and some wandering eye-flirtations with a fellow pilot (Zoe Kravitz).

At its best “Good Kill” turns its pervasive flatness into a pro, conveying the sleepy, zombified purgatory in which Thomas is stuck. Hawke can be a lively, personable actor, but he’s just as adept at shutting himself completely down, keeping all of his emotions in, as though his body were a fleshy diving bell. Scenes inside the control room look like a “Star Trek” episode crossed with a dim arcade; when it goes outside to the Nevada desert, it looks just like the compounds they’re targeting overseas. What’s to keep their enemies from taking them out with the same technology? “Good Kill” won’t let you miss how subtly clever it is, but it needs at least one more aspect, or it needs to take one less predictable direction. It’s self-satisfied to the point of being underwhelming. Only Bruce Greenwood, as their grouchy reigning Colonel, punctures the mood, not only injecting life but an air of unpredictability in a film that from its first frame is a foregone conclusion. 

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