Asher tries to get by on the talent of its leads, but it's a dull thriller hamstrung by sloppy pacing and a poorly-constructed screenplay.
An official selection at the 2018 Sitges Film Festival, Asher is the latest film from director Michael Caton-Jones (Basic Instinct 2, The Jackal). Starring Ron Perlman as the titular character, it looks to provide yet another riff on the tried and true aging hitman sub-genre, giving fans of crime movies an interesting alternative as the holiday movie season heats up. Since this is an indie release heading straight to VOD/digital, expectations certainly weren't too high going in, but the film is still something of a disappointment. Asher tries to get by on the talent of its leads, but it's a dull thriller hamstrung by sloppy pacing and a poorly-constructed screenplay.
Asher follows its eponymous subject (Perlman) a former military member turned veteran contract killer who lives an isolated existence in New York. One day, he receives a new assignment from his superior Avi (Richard Dreyfuss) and is tasked with killing three men who attempted to make an apparent power move within the criminal organization Asher is a part of. Despite having a methodical and fine-tuned approach to his work, one of these assignments doesn't go as planned and Asher finds himself crossing paths with Sophie (Famke Janssen), a ballet instructor who also cares for her ailing mother (Jacqueline Bisset).
Sophie leaves an obvious impression on Asher, who begins to dream of leaving his current life and plotting a future. But before that can happen, Asher needs to fulfill his remaining responsibilities and tie up any loose ends so he doesn't have to spend the rest of his days looking over his shoulder.
The film's biggest issue is its script, credited to Jay Zaretsky. It tries to take a deliberate and glacial route to setting up its characters and world, but the results aren't what the filmmakers intended. Asher surprisingly takes quite a long time to truly get going, meandering along through the first two acts with little reason to become emotionally invested in the narrative. The shortcomings in the script have a very clear negative effect on the movie's overall pacing, as it feels like a chore to sit through despite clocking in at less than two hours. Admittedly, things start to pick up a little bit towards the end, but by then it's too little, too late and its various payoffs don't come across as earned.
Caton-Jones doesn't really do enough to elevate the material from a technical perspective. His style is quite standard for this type of film, with very few unique flourishes to speak of. Even Asher's signature way of eliminating his targets (an initially fascinating use of a cigarette lighter) starts to wear thin due to its continued repetition throughout the early segments of the film. In some ways, Asher feels like a misguided attempt to give Perlman his own John Wick-esque character, crafting a lived-in universe where characters speak with reverence about their shared histories and wonder about the future in their line of work. There are some interesting ideas and dynamics presented, but none of them are fully fleshed out. And the action sequences, which are few and far between, are almost woefully pedestrian and will fade from memory shortly after the credits roll. Not every action film needs to reinvent the wheel with different techniques, but Asher is certainly a letdown in this department.
Perlman gives a fittingly tough and gruff performance as Asher, and it's easy to buy him as a weathered assassin nearing the end of his rope. While the part isn't the deepest the actor's explored in his career, he still does a good job of balancing the hitman's rough exterior with an emotionally vulnerable interior, crafting a portrait of a regretful elder man yearning for more out of life. Janssen is a nice enough foil for Perlman, though the two's chemistry doesn't always light up the screen. That's more likely a byproduct of the script, rather than any issues with the performances. Asher does provide Janssen with opportunities to show some range, particularly in the sequences with Bisset. Those scenes are laced with an undercurrent of sadness, and will be truly heartbreaking to anyone who's gone through a similar situation. Unfortunately, this subplot is largely disconnected from Asher's main story, so it doesn't leave the biggest emotional impact.
The main roles, while effective, are nevertheless thin - and the same can be said for the supporting cast. There are numerous side players peppered throughout Asher, including Asher's prized pupil Uzi (Peter Facinelli) and Marta Milans as Marina, but they're all severely lacking in characterization and are mainly stock figures to help propel the film further. Dreyfuss attempts to be more of a presence, putting on a showy accent and trying to lend whatever gravitas he has to Avi, but his screen time is too brief and the script honestly doesn't give him that much to work with. None of the actors are blatantly miscast here, though viewers will be left wanting more from just about everyone in the ensemble.
As indicated above, the nature of Asher's release means it wasn't high up on anyone's most-anticipated list this December, but given some of the talent involved, it's unfortunate how things turned out. The groundwork was there for a cool and interesting story about an aging assassin; it just wasn't executed properly. Those curious to see it might be inclined to give it a spin on-demand if they have the time, but it's not worth making the trip to the theater to check out (if it's even playing in one's local area, that is).
Asher is now playing in U.S. theaters and is also available on-demand and digital. It runs 117 minutes and is rated R for violence and language.
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