The Killing Machine (1994)

PLOT: A man regains consciousness after more than 200 days and discovers that he’s really good at killing people professionally. Will he play ball with the covert government agency overseeing his every move? Will he use his skills to freelance? Or will he switch careers and become a dental hygienist because it’s expected to see a 38% growth in employment over a 10-year span?

Director: David Mitchell
Writer: David Mitchell
Cast: Jeff Wincott, Michael Ironside, Terri Hawkes, David Campbell, Calista Carradine

Do you remember the first time you tasted ice cream? What about your first kiss? The first time you got punched in the face? Your first public urination arrest? Memory is weird. Somewhere in between life’s milestones and the stuff so horrifying that we can’t *not* remember, is a void filled in by some combination of hearsay and creative imagination. But what if you woke up one day and couldn’t remember a damn thing? What if your name, your surroundings, and the last 15 years of life were a fuzzy blur? David Mitchell and Jeff Wincott teamed up to explore this concept in 1994’s The Killing Machine, aka The Killing Man, aka the film Christopher Nolan wishes he had made with Memento.

The film starts with a close-up of a human eye shooting open. A human head is wrapped in bandages and a prone body lies in bed under a hot spotlight. A voiceover asks, “How long has it been? Where am I? Who am I?” The answers, provided by shady covert agent Mr. Green (Ironside) are: 250 days, can’t say, and Harland Garrett, in that order. Garrett (Wincott) is furious at Green’s elusive responses and lashes out constantly. Perhaps his behavior is due to the psychological conditioning? (He’s exposed daily to violent movies). Maybe it’s the facility’s food? (Fucking terrible). Or maybe it’s because he’s an amnesiac professional killer, brought back from near-death by the covert facility’s medical team.

After running Garrett through a variety of tests evaluating his mental and physical capabilities, Mr. Green sends him off to New York City for new business. Only after carrying out a number of lethal assignments will he be freed from the grip of Green and the covert company. Upon arrival, Garrett wanders the desolate urban streets and struggles with his identity as a professional killer. At one point, he teeters on the edge of a building ledge and stares into the abyss below. Thankfully for him and us, he comes to his senses and in the next scene, he’s getting wasted at a strip club. It’s practically a PSA for suicide prevention.

As events unfold, not everything is as it seems, and not everyone is who they claim to be. In short, it’s the martial arts film noir of your dreams. There’s smoke, shadows, chain-smoking, characters with shady motivations, and lots of scenes in vast, empty rooms with high ceilings. It has Michael Ironside chewing up the scenery, a wild “knife-cam” sequence, and the most overt AIDS conspiracy plot line this side of a Kanye West outburst.

With PM Entertainment films, you tend to see familiar names appearing in the credits, but it’s slim pickings here. There’s not a James Lew or Art Camacho to be found. Rick Sue, who played minor roles in movies such as TC 2000 and Tiger Claws, unlocks the “martial arts advisor” achievement here. To that end, the fight sequences are competently choreographed and well-shot for the most part. Some viewers will take issue with director David Mitchell scattering them throughout the film, but I’d argue that despite the scarcity, the fights occur in logical contexts. The real headscratcher was a fight towards the back-end with Garrett and Mr. Green’s main muscle. Mitchell opted to edit it down to a slow-motion yell and grimace fest peppered with POV shots. The result is probably the goofiest scene in the entire movie despite the prior occurrences of a visible boom mic, a double scrotum squeeze, and a dialog exchange that would make Aaron Sorkin slow-clap:
NURSE: I'm a nurse.
WINCOTT: Why are you here?
NURSE: To have sex. With you.
I don’t expect that anyone will confuse David Mitchell, Canadian director of b-films, for David Mitchell, British comedian and one half of That Mitchell and Webb Look. But if you swapped them, how amazing would that project have been? I don’t know if he’s done much comedy, but as the best actor of his subgenre, Jeff Wincott at the center of any Mitchell and Webb sketch would be cinematic gold. Wincott as a contestant on Numberwang? Shut up and take my money!

It should be said that Ironside and Wincott are both terrific in their respective roles. While Ironside plays the kind of character you’ve seen him play in dozens of other films, his casual menace and command of the screen is invaluable to such a low budget affair. Wincott is equal to the task, capturing his character’s shifting moods with relative ease with the added bonus of kicking heads in during the fight scenes. This film actually marked the onscreen reunion of the pair, as they appeared together about 15 years earlier on an episode of the Canadian family-drama, The Littlest Hobo. The series re-imagined Lassie as a stray German Shepherd who wanders from town to town helping people in need. Sort of like Kung Fu meets Rin Tin Tin meets Jesus-as-canine.

If you walk into a room full of 100 people and ask: “what’s the best Jeff Wincott movie?” the answers are going to be all over the map. Some will say Last Man Standing, others will say Mission of Justice, a few folks will rep for Martial Law II, and at least ten people will say “OH MY GOD WHERE’S THE FUCKING BATHROOM” because IBS affects something like 10% of the population. I’m not sure if The Killing Machine is likely to make its way into that conversation, though. It’s a bit thin on martial arts and action set pieces, but has some weird flourishes in style and narrative that support a case for this being one of the better crafted Jeff Wincott action vehicles.

Amazon, Netflix, EBay, YouTube.

5 / 7

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