Hired to Kill Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Frank Ryan (Brian Thompson) is a mercenary sent to track down a rebel leader in hostile territory. Posing as a fashion designer, he won’t be going it alone, as he’ll be aided by seven beautiful – but deadly – female fighters. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
While The Zero Boys saw Greek mogal/television personality/filmmaker Nico Mastorakis merely flirting with the Cannon Group’s military action model, Hired to Kill skydives directly into the fray, liberally borrowing from the playbooks of Joseph Zito’s B-studio output (Missing in Action, 1984; Invasion U.S.A., 1985; and Red Scorpion, 1989) and major studio tough-guy, big explosion action (stuff like George P. Cosmatos’ Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1985). Mastorakis screenplay, which was written with Zero Boys co-scripter Fred Perry and Kirk Ellis (HBO’s John Adams mini-series, 2008), is about as by-the-numbers as they come, to the point that all of the expositional scenes feel like a total chore – much like the cut-scenes in a video game. Fortunately, the filmmakers have a sense of humor about their mimicry (the jokes are much funnier here than in Zero Boys) and the “Dirty Dozen with women (who are also models in training)” concept/gimmick is amusing enough to carry the movie through the doldrums of yet another mercenary adventure (along with more dynamic camera work, artful compositions, and good coverage). Mastorakis shares a directing credit with producer Peter Rader, whose only other directing credits include Grandmother’s House (produced by Mastorakis, 1988), a made-for-TV remake of Escape to Witch Mountain (1995), and several episodes of Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan. Rader’s real claim to ‘fame’ is as the co-writer of Kevin Reynolds’ Waterworld (1995).
Assuming you’re not a rabid fan of late ‘80s/early ‘90s gung-ho B-action or excessive training and runway-walking montages, Hired to Kill still has an unusually impressive cast. It was intended as a hero vehicle for Brian Thompson – whose distinctive visage ensured that he spent most of his career acting as villainous fodder for Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger – but is probably better remembered for featuring down-on-their-luck former superstars Oliver Reed, George Kennedy, and José Ferrer, all of whom are game for the material. We’re not talking career-best performances, but Kennedy and Ferrer don’t half-ass their extended cameos and Reed is in prime weirdo mode. Hired to Kill was also the feature debut for cult actresses Michelle Moffett and Barbara Niven, as well as an early appearance for Jordana Capra. The women have more screentime than the aging stars and do a good job supporting Thompson (who proves he works much better as a character actor than a serious lead) with their tough girl scenery-chewing.
Hired to Kill was never released on DVD here in North America, though it was released from multiple VHS companies during the ‘90s and a non-anamorphic, 1.33:1 DVD from UK company Hollywood DVD (I’m guessing that, based on its cult reputation, there were also DVD and Video CD versions available throughout Europe and Asia). Like The Zero Boys, this Blu-ray debut was scanned in 4K from a 35mm interpositive and digital clean-up was approved by Mastorakis. The 1080p, 1.85:1 image is similar to the Zero Boys transfer in clarity, though there is significantly more daylight photography, so there are fewer noisy dark sequences. Details are relatively tight and the mostly neutral colors are neatly separated. The issue here is the prevalent fuzziness, which sometimes affects the close-up edges, but is a bigger problem for gradations and grain structure. Super-fine grain isn’t necessarily expected from interpositive sources and the artifacts don’t necessarily look like telecine noise to me, but the chunky gradation levels are suspicious. I suppose it is also possible that Mastorakis and cinematographer Andreas Bellis were aiming for a foggier look and that this is just what the film is supposed to look like. Rest assured, it looks just fine in motion or at least better than it appears in these still screen-caps.
The original 2.0 soundtrack is presented in LPCM alongside a 5.1 remix. The box claims that the 5.1 track is DTS-HD, but my system swears to me that it is a compressed Dolby Digital. Whether Arrow mislabeled the track or my system is having issues, the stereo/surround track seems preferable either way, because it recreates the intended sound design. The set-recorded dialogue/ambient noises are occasionally inconsistent in terms of clarity (volume levels dip slightly and some effects are tinny), but the action sequences are lively and aggressively mixed. Composer Jerry Grant, who also worked on Mastorakis productions Bloodstone (1988), Darkroom (1989), and Ninja Academy (1989), supplies a lively electronic score that successfully apes the studio action movies of the era, while also supplying a number of enjoyable original themes. The opening titles are pretty great.
Commentary with editor Barry Zetlin, moderated by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher – Given Zetlin’s long history of editing cult and horror titles – including Bruce D. Clark’s Galaxy of Terror (1981), Robert C. Hughes’ Hunter’s Blood (1987 – a movie that is begging to be rediscovered on Blu-ray), John Carl Buechler’s Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988), and many others – Felsher basically interviews him about his entire career, rather than sticking to the specifics of his work on Hired to Kill. Some fans might be upset by the lack of screen-specific information (his work with Mastorakis doesn’t even come up until about the one hour mark), but it’s still a very good and complete retrospective interview.
Hired to Direct (27:30, HD) – Another new interview with Mastorakis. “Interview” really isn’t the best term, though, because he’s not accepting any questions – he’s just talking about the movie while looking directly into the camera. Just to be a little extra weird (because Mastorakis clearly isn’t interested in typical BD/DVD featurettes), all footage of the director speaking to camera is in black and white. He also reads directly from his script at times. Very strange.
Undercover Mercenary (17:30, HD) – During this Arrow-exclusive interview, star Brian Thompson discusses his introduction to acting in college, developing a character actor persona, getting the Hired to Kill gig because he was Mastorakis’ son-in-law at the time, and working with the cast & crew.
Original Freedom or Death screenplay (BD/DVD-ROM)