New from Lionsgate, The Virtuoso is the fourth film from director Nick Stagliano. Anson Mount (Christopher Pike in season two of Star Trek: Discovery) plays a veteran hitman contracted by his mentor (Anthony Hopkins) to undertake contract killings on demand, with few questions asked. With heavy use of voiceover, Mount’s character (never named) expresses his thoughts and the lessons he has learned about effectiveness for the viewer to hear. He lives off the grid, in a cabin in the woods, with only a dog for company.
After a scene-setting hit on a man performed while the target is in the middle of love-making (leading to the expectation that this was to be an erotic thriller, but more on that later), we move on to another job where out lead must perform a kill at short notice, without the usual time to arrive early at the scene and plan events thoroughly. With a botched kill from a window down to the street killing an innocent bystander, immolating her while she was playing football with her son, our virtuoso returns home and, haunted by his mistake, begins to question if this is the life for him.
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After an indeterminate time spent avoiding his mentor’s overtures, he is eventually tracked down at the grave of his father, and told to answer his phone when work is available. This leads to a new job, where details are scant. He is required to go to a small town, and seek his mark at the local diner, without knowing the mark’s identity, and only the words ‘White River’ as a clue. Meeting a local waitress (Abbie Cornish), Mount works to try to identify his mark, while feeling a growing connection to the small-town woman.
Now the first problem with The Virtuoso is its title. Use of these words sets us up to see the very best of his profession operating at his peak. To be clear, our lead is – unironically, it seems – possibly the most incompetent hitman in recent cinema history. With a story establishing that he will have the use of a considerable skillset, which act one takes time to lay out for the viewer, to work through the population of the town, and to narrow down the list of suspects until he finds his man/woman, our virtuoso proceeds to blunder around and get into multiple situations that risk blowing his cover, or killing the wrong person. Little attempt is made to show our lead working through the clues, and this is a sign of lazy writing.
In blundering through his brief, Mount encounters a range of possible targets, including local law enforcement and another shady possible hitman (David Morse and Eddie Marsan – both wasted, in terms both of screen time and use of their characters). In fact, most of the cast are wasted here. Abbie Cornish is too big a name for the role she has been given, leading to the immediate thought that she simply cannot be what she seems, and undermining all tension.
This leads us on to Anthony Hopkins. The Virtuoso is being released as Hopkins is celebrating his second Academy Award, for The Father. The Father saw him giving possibly a generational performance, up there with his own performance in Silence of the Lambs, Nigel Hawthorne’s in The Madness of King George, and Denzel Washington’s in Training Day. Performances of that calibre are few and far between in the acting profession in general, let alone in a given actor’s career.
Here, Hopkins is back to phoning it in. His role evokes perhaps a bloodshot version of his IMF boss in Mission Impossible II, but, put simply, he looks bored. The graveside scene sees endless monologuing from his character, in a section of the film that is directionless, overlong, and played, genuinely, like Hopkins is forgetting his lines continually. This is the frustration of one of the finest actors the UK has ever produced: he can do that – but then, he is capable of doing this. Stick with The Father for an example of what this man can do in his ninth decade.
Worst of all, The Virtuoso doesn’t know what type of film it wants to be. Mount is an engaging lead, with strong screen presence, and he could – and should – be a far bigger star, but he is leading a film that has garbled aims. The voiceover suggests a neo-noir, yet the plot plays out as a mind-bender/mystery. In the same way that we try to uncover the killer in an Agatha Christie work, no doubt the writers figured the audience would enjoy trying to uncover the target, in tandem with our lead.
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In truth, the lead is so spectacularly inept (whilst telling us all about his expertise) as to render his ‘investigation’ irritating to watch. Clearly he has skills, but he is clumsy, and the film doens’t seem to know or acknowledge this. Finally, the film begins with nudity, then plays heavily on the chemistry between Mount and Cornish’s characters – complete with ineptly written (to the point of being laugh-out loud funny) flirting. Any thoughts this is leading to a Basic Instinct-style erotic thriller are dashed, as the (slightly) miscast Cornish has no charisma in the role, and the sexual tension is compartmentalised into tiny sections of the film.
If the film has one redeeming feature, it is that all players – with the exception, amazingly, of the most recent Best Actor winner at the Academy Awards – are sincere in delivering the terrible dialogue, and do the very best with what they are given. For all that, The Virtuoso is a poorly-paced mess: one that has sat on the shelf for two years, and now will be released with little-to-no fanfare. Disappointing.
The Virtuoso is out now on Digital Download and releases on DVD on 10th May from Lionsgate.