It’s odd what films make you a believer in the auteur theory. A few years before I had ever heard of Andrew Sarris or really started to dig into Cahiers du Cinema, I had watched a review of the Michael Richards-Jeff Daniels comedy “Trial and Error” on “Siskel and Ebert” where Roger Ebert showered praise on the film’s attention to detail, particularly how Charlize Theron looked both ways for traffic before crossing the street. The film was the second courtroom-set comedy directed by Jonathan Lynn, a journeyman if there ever was one after coming to the U.S. following a career in British television (most notably as a writer on “Yes, Minister”).
This is worth mentioning since “Wild Target” bears all the hallmarks of Lynn’s best films, despite being, even at a tidy 90 minutes, a bit too long. It is silly but not stupid, conforms nicely with the conventions of screwball comedies, and once again displays the director’s ability to bring the best out of his actresses, whether it’s Theron, Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny,” Amanda Peet in “The Whole Nine Yards” or even Beyonce in “The Fighting Temptations.” (It’s no coincidence his weakest films have weak female characters (“Sgt. Bilko”) or have men playing them (“Nuns on the Run”).)
In “Wild Target,” Emily Blunt is the clear object of Lynn’s affection, even if Bill Nighy is the real lead of the film as a hitman tasked with taking out a conwoman named Rose (Blunt), who has successfully passed off a Rembrandt forgery, and becomes infatuated with her instead. For Nighy’s prim, precise Victor Maynard to fall for her, Lynn must do so first, delighting in showing the type of trouble in store for Maynard when Rose tools around London on a bicycle, sneaking past cars at an intersection that she causes to crash and bewildering museum security guards. But once trouble catches up to Rose, which it does in the form of the wronged art collector Ferguson (Rupert Everett), she unwittingly flips Maynard from murdering her in a parking lot to killing the second hitman Ferguson has sent for her. (There is some small pleasure in the oddity that the third assassin sent to kill Blunt’s Rose is the British “Office”‘s Tim, Martin Henderson, has been hired as the third hitman to kill the real-life wife of the current American “Office”‘s Jim, John Krasinski.) Rupert Grint takes a rare step away from Ron Weasley to join Nighy and Blunt on the road after he witnesses the whole thing as a scruffy car wash attendant.
“Wild Target” is able to get by on the chemistry between the trio, and some clever wordplay in Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation of Pierre Salvadori’s 1993 original French film “Cible émouvante,” for about two-thirds of the film before reaching a point where Maynard and Lynn don’t know what to do with Rose, with the former taking her up to his country home for protection, robbing the latter of further opportunities to explore her devious streak. A life of domesticity doesn’t suit either Maynard or Rose, but that’s the direction “Wild Target” takes for much of the final third, with the two taking on roles completely unnatural to them that seems like an unintentional condemnation for their past crimes. And for a comedy that finds most of its humor in death, considering a life beyond one of crime is no life at all, though as the free-spirited Rose would likely be given to say, it’s fun while it lasts.
“Wild Target” is now open in limited release.