If the movies paid half as much attention to teachers and social workers as it does to contract killers, the world would be a much better place. The thought is prompted by Asher, starring Ron Perlman as an assassin coping with a midlife crisis while simultaneously fending off younger competition. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy, The Jackal), it’s a film that asks the burning question, “Can a nice Jewish hit man find love?
It’s obvious from the story’s start that Asher is a lonely soul. He lives alone in a Brooklyn apartment, fastidiously making sure his shoes are perfectly shined and treating himself to home-cooked gourmet meals accompanied by wine. He’s also very good at his work, efficiently carrying out assignments from a local crime boss (Richard Dreyfuss, milking a Yiddish accent) that are conveyed by his solicitous handler, Abram (Ned Eisenberg). Asher’s signature technique involves setting off a smoke alarm in the hallway outside his victims’ apartments, calmly waiting for his quarry to open the door and then shooting him. He even carries an umbrella to protect himself from the deluge of the overhead sprinklers.
For those who think that hit men just don’t get enough love.
Asher’s social life mainly consists of a friendly relationship with a prostitute who occasionally assists him in his work. But his life changes dramatically when, during an attempted hit, he suddenly collapses from the exertion of climbing too many stairs and literally falls into the apartment of Sophie (Famke Janssen). She solicitously attends to Asher, who is immediately smitten with the good-hearted woman who cares for her elderly, dementia-addled mother (Jacqueline Bisset, milking a Cockney accent). His heart melts even further when he sees her teaching ballet to little children at the local dance academy where she works.
The screenplay by Jay Zaretsky carefully balances its central character’s personal and professional crises. His relationship with Sophie is hampered by the fact that he’s a cold-blooded hired killer, although his profession might ironically prove handy since she’s distraught from the strain of dealing with her mother’s condition. Indeed, her mother even asks Sophie to kill her, leading Sophie and Asher into a philosophical discussion about the morality of taking human life that practically screams “irony.”
The film becomes less interesting when dealing with Asher’s career issues, such as his reluctantly agreeing to partner with a young killer (Peter Facinelli) whom he once mentored. Asher finds himself becoming the hunted rather than the hunter when the hit goes wrong, with rote action sequences ensuing.
Nothing in the proceedings rings remotely true unless you’ve been weaned on a steady diet of soulful hit men movies. But the film works to some degree anyway thanks to the terrific performance by Perlman, who infuses the title character with a compelling, world-weary gravitas. His Asher is so quietly sympathetic that, should the occasion arise, you might almost wish to be done in by him yourself. Janssen is equally good, lending subtle grace notes to what could have been a one-dimensional romantic interest. The presence of the overqualified Bisset and Dreyfuss, on the other hand, merely demonstrates the career pitfalls besetting former movie stars once they hit a certain age.
Production: Wing and a Prayer Productions, Mensch Productions
Distributor: Momentum Pictures
Cast: Ron Perlman, Famke Janssen, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Facinelli, Jacqueline Bisset, Ned Eisenberg
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Screenwriter: Jay Zaretsky
Producers: Josh Crook, Adam Folk, Joseph Mensch, Ron Perlman, Brian Wilkins
Executive producers: David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri, Joseph Siprut
Director of photography: Denis Crossan
Production designer: Carlos Menendez
Editors: Istvan Kiraly, Tomi Szabo
Composer: Simon Boswell
Costume designers: Liene Dobraja, Carisa Kelly
Casting: Kathleen Chopin
Rated R, 117 minutes