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A review of "Killing Emmett Young" (2002)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Despite relying on some contrivances to get its plot going, Killing Emmett Young is a captivating little lowkey drama / character study.  It's almost definitely not what you think it's going to be when you sign on, but in many ways, that makes it even better.  It's like going to see a Jason Statham movie and thinking you'll get Killer Elite, but you get Safe instead.  Actually, wait, that's a terrible comparison because this movie has almost no action in it.  Maybe it's more like going to see Stallone's latest and you're expecting The Expendables 3, but you end up getting Rocky Balboa.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Emmett Young (Scott Wolf) is a young, hotshot detective in Philadelphia's homicide unit.  He's dedicated to his job to an unhealthy degree - you know the archetype; the obsessive, neurotic hero who can't sleep or do much of anything else while there's a criminal plot waiting to be unraveled.

When the film opens, Emmett is hot on the trail of a serial rapist / murderer who has thus far completely eluded capture.  His investigation has to take a backseat to his health for a bit, however, when he goes to the doctor and finds out he has a fatal disease.  Young is given only a short time left to live - a matter of weeks, maybe even only days.

While puzzling over his case (and lamenting his diagnosis) at a diner, Emmett is observed by Jack Marlow (Gabriel Byrne), a shady character who lurks at a nearby booth.  Marlow eventually introduces himself as a former cop and invites Emmett out for dinner.

But of course Marlow isn't up to any good.  He's played by Gabriel Byrne, for Christ's sake.

Emmett explains his diagnosis to Marlow and adds that he doesn't want to go out the way the disease promises - he's not looking forward to the pain or the humiliation of disease.  (Two weeks in a row with protagonists who fear death by illness.  Huh.  Wonder if my subconscious is telling me something.)  And that's when Marlow makes a frankly too-forward proposition: he can arrange to have an anonymous hitman kill Emmett before the disease takes over, thus letting him die with dignity.

This somehow doesn't strike Emmett as a terrible idea at all, so he agrees.  And then, to be extra sure that it's not at all a bad idea, Emmett demands not to know anything at all about the hitman or when he'll strike.  He also promises to pay via a giant wad of cash hidden in a public locker - you know, just in case the situation might have some semblance of security on his part.

Enter John (Tim Roth), a disgraced ex-cop who now works as a security guard and seems to be controlled by Marlow via extortion,  John is told all about the scheme to kill Emmett, and although he is reluctant to be forced into a murder plot, he accepts the arrangement.

Unfortunately for Emmett, that's when things start to go awry.  Unbeknownst to him, Marlow has actually been conning him; he's actually a former lawyer named Stephen Bracken with a prolific rap sheet.  And unbeknownst to everyone until just now, Emmett isn't actually sick - his test results were mixed up by accident.

The race is on (sort of) to call off the hit before it can be carried out.  Also, there's a serial rapist / murderer whom Emmett may or may not be trying to catch.

The Part Where I Nitpick Emmett's Plot

How many movies are there where somebody hears they have a fatal disease in the first act and then they actually die of said disease in the third act?  I feel like it never actually amounts to much.  Short Time, 50/50, even Breaking Bad.  Other than last week's HHG entry (spoiler), I really can't think of an example where this pays off.

I guess my point is, you really oughtn't put a hit on yourself, no matter how miserable your disease seems to be.  You're just asking for a frantic last-minute twist.

The whole crux of the movie is kind of an exercise in irrationality.  You know how you can tell when your movie's premise is flawed?  It's when you can't picture the protagonist explaining it to somebody without trying to change the subject.

"I need your help.  This guy is trying to kill me!"
"Oh, yeah?  Why's that?"

The worst thing about the movie ends up being its central conceit.  I mean, look at that tagline.

When you hear that a movie is a thriller about a cop "who has three days to solve his own murder," you're setting up a lot of expectations.  We expect a nefarious scheme.  We expect action.  We expect a race against time.

But there's really not any of that in this movie.  The entire "I accidentally put a hit on myself" premise ends up being more of a footnote than anything else.  The movie is more of a contemplative piece on the nature of motivation, temporary existence, and inner drive.  Whatever suspense this plot might have is reduced to virtually nothing by the fact that it doesn't really happen.  Emmett doesn't even learn about his mixed up test results until the movie's already two-thirds over, and he actually manages to make contact with John and call off the hit only about twenty minutes after that.

So not only was Emmett's plot a terrible idea, but nobody even really commits to it.  So why bother putting that in your movie in the first place?  Your film is a meditative drama about life.  Just show Emmett trying to figure out how to make sense of his final days, and then bring in the third-act reveal about his illness at like an hour thirty and call it a day.  That's more satisfying than pretending that you're an action movie.

The Part Where I Complain About Shitty Cops

I feel like this isn't the first time I've noticed incompetent police officers on this blog.  Not sure where this theme started, but KEY keeps the streak alive.

The cops aren't as bad as they could have been.  There actually is a fair amount of detective work going on and the characters talk about their time on the force in a way that sounds mostly believable.  But there's just enough crap that goes on to make you wonder.

For example, Emmett puts together his profile of the serial rapist and presents it to the police department.  "We're looking for a guy in his mid-thirties, intelligent and well-spoken, with a deep-seated aggression toward women."  And so on.  Then, after a pretty thorough description, Emmett waits for questions, and one of the officers takes that opportunity to sneer and whine, "What are we supposed to do about it?"

Really?  He has to have his job explained to him?

Like... is that a thing? Do cops actually bitch about having to be cops when they're in isolated company?  "I don't wanna bust that crackhouse.  You do it."  "What do you mean, there's been another murder?  For real?  Ugh.... fine, I'll go investigate. I guess.  Happy now?"

There's also the matter of how Emmett reacts when Marlow first says he's a cop.  Emmett doesn't ask to see a badge or throw in any follow-up questions or much of anything.  He just assumes Marlow's telling the truth from the get-go.  Why would anybody lie about being a cop?

I guess that's not a problem for the first scene where they're just hanging out and having a late night snack together, but shouldn't Emmett try to do his due diligence and get in a quick background check before he accepts Marlow's offer to hire a hitman?  That's a whole new level of trust.  And a pretty high bar to clear after knowing a guy for only about two hours.

There's also one shitty cop moment in the movie that I really wanted to call attention to.  The film treats it like a throwaway shot, but in the real world it would be a scandal.  So, the setup is that Emmett is running around in a frantic haze after realizing that the hitman is out to get him.  The camera keeps cutting to various angles in a chaotic frenzy, and Emmett takes out his gun (just in case).  Then he whips around a corner and aims square at a random passerby.  The passerby shrieks and freezes, and Emmett waits a beat before lowering his gun and wandering off to mumble to himself.

Now, I get that Philadelphia might have a reputation for being a kinda rough city, but y'all aren't so bored of cops pointing guns at you that you'd just let that shit slide, right?  I don't expect there'd be a mass protest, but surely Emmett would at least get a reprimand?  Even just a scene of his boss being like, "Just a reminder guys: do not draw your gun on random bystanders while mumbling to yourself.  It's bad PR."

Hell, the movie doesn't even end with Emmett catching the serial rapist/murderer.  That whole thread is left open, so it's not even like you can say, "At least they catch the bad guys."

These cops are lucky that the movie they're in is pretty decent, because otherwise I'd think it was all a big, stupid joke.

The Part About Accepting Your Limitations in Life

The real surprise of this movie is that it's an overall effective meditation on what it means to embrace life, even in the context of dirty or unpleasant experiences.

Emmett and John are foils.  The former is a clever, successful, and talented detective who believes everything is about to come to an end.  The latter is a broken, unsuccessful ex-cop whose professional career has already ended and who has been given an opportunity to make some money.

The two are contrasted in some interesting ways.  For example, you'll notice that although Emmett has an on-again, off-again girlfriend, the movie doesn't really delve into his romantic life.  Instead, we get to see John nurture a relationship with a woman who might possibly be a long-term partner.

There's also one particularly interesting scene that I really enjoyed where John breaks into Emmett's apartment to learn more about him, and in the process stumbles upon a clue that could help to crack the serial murderer/rapist case.  Instead of leaving it alone, John erases any hint of it from Emmett's apartment and then tries to follow-up on the clue on his own, temporarily taking up the investigation.  He doesn't get very far; he's not a very good cop.  But he tries anyway.

What you end up with is a guy whose natural talent should be enough to keep him satisfied, yet he seems to get frustrated so easily that he wants to give up on things, versus a dude who has no luck at all and keeps trying, anyway.  Emmett bails on his romantic relationship and even life itself once things start to get a little difficult to manage.  Meanwhile, John pounces on tiny hints of opportunity to live a better life.

Eventually both of them converge at a point of acceptance.  Emmett realizes that he can't run away from challenges and simply needs to face them head-on, and John realizes that he's just not good enough to compete in certain arenas.  Their final confrontation is less a shoot out and more a group self-actualization session.

Where You Can Watch

Killing Emmett Young is streaming on Netflix right now.