Ethan Hawke was once a determined renaissance man, writing novels about the pain of being talented and handsome while appearing in art films of varying levels of quality. Hawke has always been a gifted actor, but his blossoming interest in lurid genre films—starting with 2001’s Training Day—has coaxed a wonderful comic quality out of his performances. He hasn’t entirely shaken his earnestness and preciousness, though, which amusingly contrasts with the mercenary seediness of films such as Sinister and The Purge. And 24 Hours to Live benefits from a similar sense of unexpected casting: When one considers the prospect of a “renegade badass with a chance at redemption,” the mind doesn’t turn to Hawke, who invests his character’s inevitable kill spree with an urgency and desperation that the film doesn’t entirely earn.
24 Hours to Live serves up the stew of explosions, gun fights, car chases, gimmicks, and taunting that’s expected of a globe-trotting thriller. Travis Conrad (Hawke) is another shadowy assassin who thinks he’s retired only to be pulled back into yet another murky conspiracy, by his former military and contract-killing compatriot, Jim Morrow (Paul Anderson). Travis and Jim are employed by Red Mountain, a corporatized outfit that does the government’s dirty work on the down low, off the auditable books. Red Mountain needs a witness killed in Africa after an operation goes haywire, and Travis is the only man for the job. Excluding Hawke’s presence, this film could be any one of a dozen VOD action films to be released over the course of the last year.
Certain flourishes indicate a film that’s more ambitious than 24 Hours to Live ultimately turns out to be. Some of the mayhem is staged by Brian Smrz with a sense of steely cubism that suggests the work of Neveldine/Taylor. The flashbacks to Travis’s time in the military, shot from a first-person perspective and edited into shards of violent chaos, hauntingly parallel the claustrophobic skirmishes that are set in the present day and framed in tight compositions that emphasize Travis’s constriction among cars, dumpsters, and the corridors of Red Mountain’s kingdom of modern surveillance.
But Smrz never contrasts the film’s violence with stillness, allowing the audience to enjoy a sense of foreboding escalation. Each incident rushes by the screen, undeveloped, bleeding into the next. Travis seduces an Interpol agent, Lin (Xu Qing), at an airport for information on his target, and nearly the entire episode is elided so that the film may proceed to the next surprise killing. Which is a shame, because Hawke and Xu have chemistry, and the former excels at playing smoothies who revel in a faux-humility that gradually becomes legitimate. Rutger Hauer and Liam Cunningham also appear as elder man’s men with differing vested interests in Travis’s livelihood, and they’re similarly squandered by the film’s hectic pacing. 24 Hours to Live is watchable trash, but one can discern the faint outlines of a more diverting time-killer.