Sometimes, people surprise you. In the case of Katherine Heigl’s character in Killers, people surprise you by revealing that they are are CIA-trained spies and killers. In the case of this reviewer, they surprise you by making a not-horrendous movie despite being named Katherine Heigl. Perhaps it’s because after Knocked Up, 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth, my expectations of a movie starring Heigl were lowered so far that it would have been hard for Killers to truly disappoint. And it didn’t – not totally.
Heigl plays Jen, a software salesperson of some kind who has recently been dumped by her boyfriend and is vacationing in Nice with her parents. We learn in the first thirty seconds that she’s been dumped, and in the first two minutes we learn why: As her mother says, she’s too “safe” and “predictable” and “not spontaneous enough.” Jen, whose parents are played by the hilarious but underused Katherine O’Hara the still-mustachioed Tom Selleck, are polar opposites: He likes to play it safe, and she likes to play it fast, loose and drunk. Almost as soon as they arrive, Jen meets Spencer, a CIA agent who is in Nice on a job that conveniently involves lots of driving along cliff top roads in a red Ferrari convertible (subtle!) and swimming (shirtless!). They fall in love and he decides to quit his line of work which, he confesses to a sleeping Jen, he doesn’t really like. He doesn’t particularly enjoy killing people, and he wants to get out of the spy game and “put down some roots.” So he gets out, and they go home and get married.
Three years later, they’re living a dreamy suburban life, but Jen is worried that the relationship is going stale. Meanwhile, Spencer’s former boss has contacted him to bring him out of retirement. He resists, and then people start trying to kill him. All the people in his neighborhood. As it turns out, Jen’s dad is also a spy and, mad that Spencer tried to kill him in Nice, he planted sleepers in their neighborhood and has now put at $20 million bounty on Spencer’s head. Spencer is forced to reveal his true identity to Jen, who is predictably less than thrilled. Much shooting, exploding and car crashing ensues as Jen and Spencer spend the day running from the many trained assassins and money-hungry amateurs who live in their quiet suburban community (I know, it’s like the screenwriters read your journal!). In the end, all ends happily, with the two former spies reconciling their differences and Jen forgiving her husband and father for their secret identities. And of course, there is an adorable baby boy who, tragically, is born without a Selleck mustache.
Perhaps one of the most upsetting things about this movie is the rather graphic violence against women. It’s nice to see women get in on the action, literally: The majority of the assassins who come after Spencer and Jen are women. But it’s not nice to note that the assassins who are most brutally killed are women. When the women are killed – impaled on chandeliers made of antlers or shot point-blank – we see it in gory detail, and we see close-ups of their bleeding bodies. When the men are killed, there’s no such attention to detail.
As we’ve come to expect from a character played by Heigl, Jen is uptight, socially inept and hyper-organized. When she and Spencer first meet, she is holding a huge tub of Maalox. Apparently, showing her lifting vacuum-packed Ziploc bags of clothes out of her suitcase and wearing a button-down and pearls on a beach vacation wasn’t quite obvious enough; they had to script this so that Jen quite literally has something stuck up her ass. She’s horrified to be single, self-pitying in the extreme, and incapable of sticking up for herself. I’m not sure quite how we ended up with this particulary rom com portrayal of the modern woman – desperate for a man, desperate for order, desperate to be anyone but herself – but I do know that I hate it.
That said, Jen and Spencer’s relationship is generally a respectful and collaborative one. They both have careers, they both do housework and when Jen’s father expresses his concerns about Spencer’s inability to take care of Jen, Spencer says, “Jen’s not some fragile china doll… I depend on her, sir, it’s not the other way around.” Given this, it’s frustrating to see Jen occasionally relegated to the role of nagging wife or buzzkill. On several occasions, her horror at killing people and lack expertise with guns are portrayed as getting in Spencer’s way, and he gets frustrated with her. Apparently, it’s unreasonable for a woman to stop and ask questions when her husband says “I used to work for the CIA, please go into the living room and get the small cache of weapons I’ve hidden under the floorboards, as people appear to be trying to kill us.”
Of course, in action movies, that reaction is unreasonable. In action movies, women simply say “OK, let’s lock and load!” and turn out to be quite good with a gun, despite having no firearms training at all. And at its core, Killers isn’t really a romantic comedy. It’s an action movie with a relationship at the center, an escapist fantasy for people – men, specifically – who feel suffocated by their quiet suburban existences and their comfortable, happy marriages. And it’s not as sexist or as train-wrecky as we’ve come to expect from Katherine Heigl movies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still sexist in that, as usual, Heigl plays a risk-averse, highly organized, socially awkward, single-and-hating-it woman whose voice enters canines-only upper registers when she’s upset. True, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, but it’s nowhere near as egregious as Heigl’s previous movies. So the real question is: Why was this movie marketed as a typically sexist Heigl rom com?
The trailers highlight the naggy, uptight, miserably-single Heigl moments instead of the ones where she’s helping her husband escape from assassins or kicking a little butt herself. They show the scenes where she’s struggling with her gun or freaking out about a car chase, just to emphasize the fact that while Kutcher is playing a suave former spy, Heigl is playing a silly woman. In reality, both Jen and Spencer have moments of suave and moments of silly. But as we know from recent rom com experience (I’m looking at you, hell-bound people responsible for The Bounty Hunter and The Proposal), sexism sells. It’s far easier to market a movie about a badass former spy and his uptight wife than a movie where husband and wife love each other, work together and blow some stuff up. Talk about safe, predictable and not spontaneous enough.