"Wild Target," starring Bill Nighy and Emily Blunt, is a droll British farce about a middle-aged hit man who falls for a beautiful young mark, and as its title suggests, everything -- including the movie -- seems destined to spin dangerously out of control.
In this re-imagining of Pierre Salvadori's more darkly told 1993 French original, "Cible Emouvante," there is irony around every curve and swerve of Lucinda Coxon's screenplay. Human nature, romance, family ties, the art of the kill, honor among thieves and Murphy's Law are lined up like dominoes just waiting for a fall.
Since irony is so often director Jonathan Lynn's weapon of choice, "Wild Target" should have been a good fit. It's not quite. With the exception of "My Cousin Vinny," the filmmaker has spun gold more often on British TV, most notably in the '80s with the insolent excellence of "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" (both comedy series created and written with Antony Jay).
On the big screen, Lynn, a Brit who decamped to Los Angeles years ago, can flounder (see, or not, "The Whole Nine Yards," "The Distinguished Gentleman" or "Sgt. Bilko"). When he does in "Wild Target," the film loses the tension that should accompany all those collapsing dominoes Coxon arranged so nicely.
Set in modern-day London and surrounding countryside, it all begins when a high-end art heist goes south. Rose (Blunt) is a clever con, and in a classic bait-and-switch, borrows a Rembrandt so that a forged copy can be pawned off on Ferguson (Rupert Everett), a dapper gangster and obsessive art collector with deep pockets and a nasty temper.
The country's most elusive, and expensive, assassin, Victor Maynard (Nighy), gets the commission to waste the deceitful young lovely. Ah, but what a waste.... In one of the film's best scenes, and the linchpin for all that follows, he's completely charmed by Rose's remarkable sleight of hand. Blunt is irresistible as she saunters unsuspectingly through a crowded flea market, lifting whatever catches her fancy, slipping in and out of sight each time Victor's silencer is set to do its job.
Director of photography David Johnson ("Hilary and Jackie," "Resident Evil") lets the camera linger adoringly, as if taken by the unintended seduction as much as Victor is. Where Blunt's Rose is all softness and light, Nighy's Victor is brittle and brisk -- from the precision timing he exhibits in the various shootouts to the plastic-wrapped furniture in his well-appointed but dreary country home.
Nighy is usually a treat to watch navigating life's bad turns, so it's especially frustrating that the filmmaker so often leaves him at loose ends. Nighy was perhaps never better than in a similar role, the excellent 2005 TV drama "The Girl in the Cafe," another case of an uptight older man undone by a disastrous flirtation. Here when sparks -- romantic and otherwise -- should fly, they fizzle instead.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, some sexual content and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West LA