When is Ethan Hawke going to get his own John Wick?

Ethan Hawke in 24 Hours To Live
Screenshot: YouTube
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The Condemned: 24 Hours To Live (2017)

The plot: Travis Conrad (Ethan Hawke) is a world-class killer and mercenary currently on hiatus as he mourns the death of his wife and son one year earlier. Soon, however, his friend and associate Jim Morrow (Peaky Blinders’ Paul Anderson) recruits him to take over a situation another assassin botched—and for the princely sum of $2 million, Travis agrees to perform the job. The gig is straightforward: take out a solider and whistleblower on shadowy conglomerate (and client for this assassination gig) Red Mountain before he can testify on the nefarious operations of the organization.

The name of the film and its trailers ruin the twist, much to the chagrin of the director. About 25 minutes into the roughly 90-minute movie, Travis learns the location of his target, but is killed by the Interpol agent (Qing Xu) tasked with protecting the whistleblower. If you didn’t know it was coming, that’d be one hell of a twist to end the first act. Suddenly, Travis wakes up on an operating table, and makes an unpleasant discovery: He’s been brought back to life to reveal the whereabouts of the whistleblower. Unfortunately, the technology that brings him back includes a failsafe to prevent anyone from learning about this high-tech form of resuscitation—those brought back from death have a built-in timer that grants them exactly 24 hours of additional life. Travis, needless to say, is pissed.

Over-the-top box copy: Nothing but a tagline on this one, “He’ll stop when he’s dead,” which, doesn’t that kind of contradict the entire premise of the film? Not even death stops the man! Regardless, this makes something like the fifth Home Video Hell entry in a row that can’t seem to manage an endorsement on its cover—especially strange in this case, for reasons I’ll soon get to. At least the European Blu-ray manages to offer up the pull quote, “An action-thriller with a pulse.”

The descent: This film is from “a producer of John Wick” (again, touted by the Euro cover), which makes it part of the proud tradition of movies that try to ride the coattails of other, better movies, even when it shares literally none of the creative talent with the film in discussion. However, that producer, Basil Iwanyk, was apparently the one who tapped longtime stuntman and stunt coordinator Brian Smrz to make his directorial debut with the gig. Smrz—who must have sold the vowels in his last name to get the budget he wanted—was presumably recruited (he seems to imply this himself in interviews) thanks to John Wick’s success, in which another longtime stunt coordinator (well, two, technically) demonstrated that such a gamble can reap enormous dividends in the action genre. If it doesn’t pay off quite so well here, well, there are worse bets to make.

The theoretically heavenly talent: Ethan Hawke is one of the best genre-film actors of his generation, as we’ve made clear on this very site. This is a guy who shows up to play, whether he’s being asked to sit around watching Super-8 movies of a spooky monster or spend almost the entire film behind the wheel of a car. Despite doing some gunslinging in recent Westerns like In A Valley Of Violence and The Magnificent Seven, the chance to see him finally get to lay down some hurt in a modern-day action thriller is a no-brainer as a fan of both actor and genre.

He’s aided in his efforts by Anderson, who is rapidly becoming a familiar character-actor face in any project that calls for a leathery sense of machismo (Hostiles, The Revenant, In The Heart Of The Sea). Game Of Thrones’ Ser Davos Seaworth, Liam Cunningham, shows up to bark orders as the corporate honcho Wetzler, and Rutger Hauer appears in what amounts to an extended cameo, the father of Hawke’s deceased wife getting drunk with his son-in-law as they scatter the ashes. (You’d be forgiven for suspecting he’s basically just playing himself.) Action star Qing Xu is fine, even with all her lines reportedly dubbed. But this is the Ethan Hawke show, make no mistake.

The execution: It gives me great pleasure to report that for the first time in a very long time, a Home Video Hell movie isn’t too bad! Yes, the grading curve is practically a horizontal line, but still—I feel like a man who has just been handed his 14th glass of lemon juice in a row, only to be told, “Oh, hey, we finally read the instructions for making lemonade, and it turns out we were supposed to be adding sugar! See if that improves the taste.” Nothing about 24 Hours To Live is going to set the world on fire—or even give it a good rug burn, really—but it’s a decent method of passing the time. An action-thriller with a pulse, you might say, if you were looking for a way to offer faint praise.

Almost all of the success of this film comes from Hawke’s performance. As Travis, he exudes a bone-deep weariness that comes from a life he’s no longer terribly sure he wants to keep living. It’s the kind of deep-set naturalism you expect from a gritty indie film, but Hawke brings his chops to this thinnest of characters, a guy who’s done bad things and is now sad. I mean, just watch this initial scene of Hawke confronting some thugs who are following him, and admire the way in which he manages to lock them in a bathroom, pretend to be a concerned employee, create and throw in a gas bomb, does a bump of cocaine, and then strip them of their IDs, all while seeming like he’s doing the absolute bare minimum anyone could imagine in this situation, with the least amount of giving a fuck. It’s oddly satisfying.

Once he’s killed and comes back with a ticking-clock expiration date, there’s an obvious adrenaline jolt given to both the movie and the character, as the formerly laconic and exhausted man discovers a renewed sense of purpose for the little time he has remaining. Namely, to do the right thing for once, expose the terrible people doing terrible things, and—arguably most importantly—take out the fuckers who were stupid enough to mess with him, including his former friend, Jim. What makes the film odd is how little opportunity it gives Hawke for demonstrations of badassery during this back half of the movie. His initial escape from post-mortem captivity has a few good beatdowns, but until the final assault on the Red Mountain headquarters, he’s mostly playing defense with the occasional gunfire. He protects the whistleblower with lots of crouching and running away. Then the whistleblower is killed and the Interpol agent’s son is kidnapped, so Hawke coordinates a rescue, largely executed by other people. He’s a reactive character, which is tough to frame as super badass.

Happily, during those moments, Hawke is still managing to emote and find surprising beats of humanity inside not just Travis, but his allies, enemies... even the cardboard cutout mercs he used to work with, and who are now being dispatched to take him out. In the scene below, he confronts the men who kidnapped the son, guys he used to work with, and note the contrast between the dialogue (which is pretty generic) and the weirdly soulful beats Hawke manages to inject into the exchange, making for an unexpectedly affecting shootout—especially given he collapses right before it starts, leaving him to watch it all go down while in a daze. (You may want to ignore Qing Xu, who seems remarkably calm for a woman who has just had her son kidnapped a short while ago.)

Ultimately, there’s a bit of when-do-we-get-to-the-fireworks-factory at work in 24 Hours To Live, as the film sets up its antagonists, and then keeps them at arms’ length from Travis until the final act of the film. It’s even counted down on his arm timer—with 25 minutes left in the film, he’s got a half-hour of life left. The last section, in which Travis storms the (frankly pretty milquetoast) headquarters of Red Mountain, plays out in something close to real time. And it’s a satisfying enough payoff: He shoots, kicks, punches, and smashes his way through a legion of guards, until he confronts Jim and Wetzler. And the film even pulls back from the typical avenging-angel narrative, there, too, going for character beats instead of the antihero revenge arc. Travis is a believably human warrior, getting clipped by a bullet, wincing in pain, acting like anything but some flawless robot of revenge. Plus, he refuses to kill his former friend (“I want the fish to like me,” he says, nodding to the large tank in the room that was just obliterated), instead leaving it to Jim to see the error of his ways and sacrifice himself by killing Wetzler. Still, as the clip below demonstrates, Hawke gets to do some solid ass-kicking leading up to that.

Weirdly, as the climax approaches, the movie takes a couple minutes to return to Rutger Hauer’s character, who I’d forgotten all about, just so that he can mutter a shitty one-liner while taking out two assassins, who frankly should’ve killed him in the far-too-long amount of time between when he announces his presence and then pulls the trigger.

Oh, and speaking of dumb moves: Surely an Interpol agent who has survived a multi-man assault on her witness—and one gets the drop on Hawke’s “the best there is” mercenary, no less—would know that if a Humvee is driving away with her kidnapped son inside of it, rather than shouting, “No!” semi-listlessly at the trail of dust it’s leaving in its wake, maybe you should shoot out the tires to stop its escape? No? Just checking.

The films ends exactly as you might suspect: With the supposedly dead Travis being re-awoken through this magical, death-defying project, ready for another 24-hour bonanza of action. Unfortunately, that sequel likely won’t arrive, as this movie vanished quietly into the ether of the DTV wastelands. And it’s not hard to see why: It was a blatant attempt to clone John Wick in slightly different clothing, but Smrz lacks the chops of that film’s Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, both in terms of fight choreography and directorial clarity.

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Only if someone finally realizes what they could have by pulling a Keanu Reeves and finding Hawke his own Stahelski and Leitch. The actor should claim a fantastic action franchise, as his performance here proves. He could be the lazy humanist assassin from hell, a guy who just wants to hang out, do some drugs, and drink some beers, but people keep trying to kill him. Someone, please, do for the 24 Hours To Live sequel what John Hyams did for the Universal Soldier DTV films: Reinvent it with a director with bone-crunching vision, and make Ethan Hawke the avenging badass who would rather be at a Nick Cave concert.

Damnable commentary track or special features? Not a one.

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.