David Fincher’s ponderous and unrewarding new movie stars Michael Fassbender as an assassin who botches a job and must now attempt to clean up the mess before he’s rubbed out himself. Like its brooding anti-hero’s bullet, it lands wide of the mark.

It’s a study in futility — critical blanks-firing — to accuse a slick mainstream revenge thriller of prioritising style over substance. Fincher is one of Hollywood’s most successful and revered directors, but he’s never pretended to profundity. In his surface is not his depth, just more surface. The Killer looks great. But it’s hard to warm to a methodical exercise in technical proficiency about a methodical man who exercises technical proficiency — until he doesn’t. It’s proof that everybody, even the very best, has to miss sometime.

Based on a French graphic novel, and with more than a tip of the fedora to Le Samourai — the Jean-Pierre Melville classic from 1967, with the commanding Alain Delon in the hat — it is equally redundant, no doubt, to say that The Killer is derivative. But it is. Countless cool leading men and semi-arty directors have since attempted their own spins on the squinty-silent assassin genre; John Woo made a film called The Killer, in 1989, inspired by Le Samourai, with Chow Yun-fat as the gunman. And then there’s Hitchcock (because there’s always Hitchcock) and the trope of director — and by implication audience — as voyeur, watching unseen through the killer’s binoculars. (The critic Kevin Maher, who liked Fincher’s film much more than I did, writes much more eloquently about that here.)

the killer

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The film opens in Paris, where the hitman lies in wait for his victim in an abandoned WeWork office: one of a number of droll visual touches. He practises yoga in black rubber gloves while expounding, in creepy voiceover, his cod-nihilistic worldview. “Fate is a placebo,” mutters Fassbender at one point. Or maybe I misheard and he said, “Faith is a placebo.” Either way: whatever, dude.

The twist here is that unlike the impeccably cool assassins of cinema history, Fassbender’s character is meant to be a bit of a nerd. He dresses like a German tourist to “avoid being memorable” (in that he succeeds) and listens to archive indie (The Smiths, cute the first time.) In his dopey bucket hat, at the wheel of his uncool compact hire car, and with his habit of basing aliases on the names of characters from ancient sitcoms (Happy Days, Cheers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show), he’s ruthless murderer as dull suburban dad. “James Bond by way of Home Depot,” as Fincher has described him.

Fassbender, returning to the screen after a four-year layoff, plays his character straight as a rifle barrel. He’s an excellent actor, but as a leading man he can be a cold fish, unusually withholding, almost anti-charismatic. Doubtless that’s the idea here. But director and star give us precious little to cling to in terms of character or plot. It’s unclear what, if anything, is at stake. We’re a long way here from the crackling tension of The Day of the Jackal.